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NPC Round 1 Preview
Huw Turner
August 12, 2004

With the form of the All Blacks having dropped away alarmingly in recent weeks, the forthcoming NPC season offers a wonderful opportunity for players previously in the test squad, or on the fringes, to remind the selectors of their credentials before the party to tour Europe at the end of the year is announced.

Not to mention those with a reputation to make in the three months of the competition.

The Westpac Stadium is the venue for Friday evening's opener between Wellington , finalists in 2003 , and Canterbury , one of New Zealand's traditional powerhouses. Wellington coach John Plumtree, now in his second season after a spell with Swansea, made an auspicious start back home, working hard to get to grips with the Lions' reputation as a side brimful of sparkle and flair but desperately short of competitive consistency. Having lost the likes of Christian Cullen, Paul Steinmetz , Pita Alatini and Jason Spice , he is still able to call upon the formidable talents of Conrad Smith, Piri Weepu, Shannon Paku and Tane Tu'ipulotu . But it is amongst the forwards , in particular the front five, that frailties have been exposed in the past. Despite the recruitment of former Otago and All Black prop Joe McDonnell and undoubted strength in depth amongst the loose forwards , there is still the strong suspicion of weakness amongst the tight five and this is where Canterbury can be expected to attack.

Aussie McLean's side have plenty to prove after a lacklustre 2003.Greg Feek, Dave Hewett, Corey Flynn and Brad Thorn have considerable acculumated All Black experience in that department and should guarantee setpiece dominance. There is not the customary backline menace , however, and Aaron Mauger's joining the All Black squad in South Africa further depleted McLean's midfield options. This promises to be a close encounter , Wellington's energy likely to be fuelled by home crowd fervour and decisive in the face of the more dogged Cantabrian effort.

Northland could not have asked for a tougher start than a Saturday afternoon trip to the deep south , Carisbrook and Otago. Win-less in 2003, it is hard to see where the Northlanders can eke out championship points in 2004. Buoyed by the arrival this week of Queenslander Julian Huxley, who will start at first five and partner Manu Samoan test player John Senio at half back, the Aussie faces a tough debut. His pack seems certain to be under fire and lacking the bulk or skill of an Otago eight fielding Anton Oliver, Carl Hoeft, Filipo Levi , Sam Harding and Josh Blackie. Otago coach Wayne Graham, himself a former All Black flanker, can call upon pace , guile and flair amongst his backs , John Leslie and Jason Shoemark two of the more interesting. Leslie has returned home after making his mark in the Scottish test side and Shoemark , a former skipper of the New Zealand Colts side , lines up against his former team mates after transferring south earlier in the year.

The visit of North Harbour to New Plymouth is another of those fixtures which offers contrasting playing styles : the torrid , forward dominated style favoured by Taranaki and the more expansive , but sometimes more erratic and flimsy approach of a side likely to field a much more talented back division. Forward muscle and drive will be provided for Taranaki by skipper Paul Tito, Tony Penn, Brent Thompson , Gordon Slater and Reece Robinson. But the backs are an unknown quantity and we will only be able to make any sort of reasoned judgement after this match. There is no doubting the quality of the Harbour backs , Nick Evans and Rico Gear are currently away with the All Blacks but there is quality back -up from the likes of Hosea Gear, Luke McAlister, Tusi Pisi and Anthony Tuitavake. Like Wellington , the composition of the tight five is unconvincing.

Waikato should not be troubled by Southland in Hamilton on Saturday evening. John Mitchell's side have a powerful look about them and are my tip to be the strongest challengers for Auckland's crown. Even without Jonno Gibbes, Keith Robinson and Marty Holah , their forward pack has a solid look about it : Steven Bates, Michael Collins , Greg Smith , Sean Hohneck and Scott Couch all seasoned campaigners. Even without Byron Kelleher , the backs have a menacing look : Sivivatu and Anesi on the wings, Lowen , Ranby and Hill midfield and Boss and Duggan as half back options. Southland punched above their weight in 2003, but struggled away from home. The loss of skipper Steve Jackson to North Harbour is a huge one , the workload thus imposed on Paul Miller , Hale T-Pole and Daniel Quate of equivalent proportions. Half back Jimmy Cowan will thrive once again in this environment , his name already pencilled in perhaps as an All Black end of year bolter.

The last time the Bay of Plenty played Auckland for the Ranfurly Shield at Eden Park, in 1996, they came within a whisker of a famous victory. Buoyed by a 5th place in 2003, and the Super 12 experience gained by a clutch of their players subsequently, they feel optimistic about their chances of giving the Aucklanders a shake-up. Pat Lam , Shane Howarth and Frank Bunce have yet to come under pressure as coaches to this Auckland side and despite the obvious strength at their disposal and the impressiveness of their two early season Ranfurly Shield triumphs they seem certain to do so this weekend. The move of lock Bradley Mika to no8 is an interesting one, especially with the All Blacks desperately looking for someone with the bulk to compete at test level. The form of Sione Lauaki , Daniel Braid and Ben Atiga will also be closely watched . For the Bay, Adrian Cashmore makes a return to Eden Park and Kevin Senio and Glen Jackson will demand close attention from the Aucklanders. Skipper Wayne Ormond, Paul Tupai, Simms Davison, Aleki Lutui and Ben Castle will take the forward battle to Angus MacDonald and his men and provide a level of opposition they have yet to experience in 2004.

Scrum's first round picks : Wellington, Otago, Taranaki, Waikato, Auckland.

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