Air New Zealand Cup
Air New Zealand Cup set for the off
July 29, 2009
Dan Carter could step up from club rugby last week to NPC action for Canterbury this weekend © Getty Images
The Air New Zealand Cup, New Zealand's premier domestic competition, gets underway this weekend.
Tasman and Taranaki get the new season underway at Blenheim's Landsowne Park on Thursday evening. Both teams finished in mid-table last year and will be looking to progress beyond the quarter-final stages this season.
They've played each other four times in the past, with Taranaki having won three of those, but the last time they played each other, in August last year, Tasman ran out 33-23. Both sets of coaching staff have virtually full strength squads to choose from, although Nathan Hohaia comes in on the Taranaki wing for Paul Perez, who broke his ankle last month.
Last season's beaten finalists Wellington get the chance to get their title assault underway when they host Otago at the Westpac Stadium on Friday.
Wellington are shorn of their All Black stars but still have ballast to call upon in the form of Robert Fruean, Victor Vito and Dane Coles, and will be looking to avenge last season's defeat by the men from Otago.
The visitors will have the recovering Adam Thomson in their midst, as well as the deadly Willie Mitt on hand to capitalise on any Wellington errors.
Northland will be looking to take the scalp of the Bay of Plenty Steamers, who don't have a coach at the moment. Greg Smith has gone AWOL but Bay of Plenty will be hoping that their solid squad, including Tanerau Latimer, Luke Braid and former Warrior and League international Clinton Toopi, will provide them with enough strength to repeat their defeat of Northland last season.
Northland's impetus will be provided by Blues veteran Justin Collins and the exciting back prospect Rene Ranger.
Hawke's Bay, last year's fairytale team, will hope they can go one better this year after being knocked out in the semi-finals by eventual champions Canterbury. They welcome Auckland to Napier's McLean Park and boast a wonderfully young and talented squad.
Auckland, the most decorated team in New Zealand history, are in the middle of a rebuilding phase and currently lack any past or present All Blacks in their squad; they could struggle against what will be a slick Bay outfit.
The defending champions Canterbury, who kick-off the campaign as joint favourites with Wellington, get the defence of their title underway against North Harbour in Invercargill.
All Black star Carter could feature for the visitors as he steps up his return following a long-term injury lay-off but they also have Stephen Brett and Colin Slade on hand to steer the sidefrom the inside back position. Corey Flynn and Andy Ellis could also feature as they rehabilitate from injury lay-offs.
North Harbour are coached this season by All Black legends Craig Dowd and Jeff Wilson and have Anthony Boric, Anthony Tuitavake and Rudi Wulf on their books so should put in a strong showing.
Canterbury beat North Harbour 39-3 last season and with Carter and Co. due to line-up they should be too strong for Harbour.
The 2006 Champions Waikato should be in for a strong showing against Southland. After two years of relative underachievement, they feature eight of their first-choice Super 14 squad. The Mooloo men include in their squad All Blacks Liam Messam and Sione Lauaki plus stalwarts Kevin O'Neill, Toby Lynn, Callum Bruce and Dwayne Sweeney.
Southland had an excellent 2008 campaign, finishing fourth, but only feature two All Blacks and are likely to struggle despite being at home at Rugby Park Stadium.
In the round's final game on Sunday, Manawatu take on Counties Manakau in Palmerston North. Manawatu finished bottom last season but will be hoping to repeat their performance of last year, when they inflicted the only defeat upon eventual champions Canterbury.
They feature New Zealand's under 20 coach Dave Rennie and IRB Junir World Player of the year Aaron Cruden but otherwise have a young and inexperienced squad that could well have a difficult season.
Struggling Counties are already financially cash-strapped and rejected an NZRFU bail-out but do carry the double threat of Tasesa Lavea and the Super 14 sensation Leila Masaga.
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