FRESH LEGS: Loose forward Jordan Taufua will make his national provincial championship debut for the Tasman Makos against Canterbury at Trafalgar Park tomorrow.
If your aim is to start the new season with a bang, then taking on the defending champions first up appeals as the ideal scenario.
The Tasman Makos launch their 2012 ITM Cup national provincial rugby campaign against a formidable Canterbury lineup at Trafalgar Park tomorrow. But as Tasman head coach Kieran Keane pertinently explains, it was always Tasman's choice to play last year's champions.
With the new NPC structure again involving the top-tier premiership and second-tier championship competitions for a second year, the crossover aspect between the two allows for championship teams, including Tasman, to select a preferred premiership opponent. Tasman chose Canterbury.
"Their depth's incredible and they will be a massive challenge," said Keane.
"But we like playing Canterbury and we chose to play them - we chose them for a reason, because we always want to measure ourselves by them. They're top dogs, a champion team, and they were our first pick. We want to play them."
That said, and notwithstanding the powerful Canterbury side that awaits them tomorrow night, Tasman are in a significantly better frame of mind compared to last year's horror buildup.
Last season, a condensed provincial series meant limited preparation time, which clearly showed in Tasman's early performances. They've had a much more organised and successful preseason campaign this time, with Keane much more comfortable with the squad's progress.
"The whole thing has gone a lot more smoothly and the integration of everybody has been good. The players have come together really nicely and the whole transition of preseason has gone a lot better.
"Time has passed too quickly as usual. Perhaps the West Coast fixture [won 102-0] didn't serve a great purpose, but needless to say, we got something out of it. So having the three fixtures was a big plus."
He said that Tasman's 29-5 preseason win over a Cantabrians selection in Kaikoura had absolutely no bearing on tomorrow night's clash.
"The new [Canterbury] challenge is the real challenge and everything else has been preparatory. So the money's up now and we're up against our traditional foe, the big boys, and we're really excited about that, which is a plus."
However, he said an unbeaten three-match preseason campaign was still an important part of the process towards building confidence, improving the players' mental toughness and paying attention to detail.
"Everybody's got a year older and we haven't got an influx of new and inexperienced people this time. Everybody that is new has either got experience, or has played at the required level.
"We've got a few fresh faces, but the side is well balanced and carries a couple of degrees more experience. The mindset change has been pretty prominent in all our thinking and our training and it's been referred to quite a bit."
Among the newcomers is the latest cornerstone of Tasman's scrum, experienced tighthead prop Campbell Johnstone, who said he was satisfied with the way Tasman's set-piece play had progressed during their preseason.
"It's been developing well [but] there's still a bit of room for improvement," said Johnstone, particularly with reference to some scrum timing issues, which he said would improve with more game time together.
And as a former cog in the Canterbury system, the ex-All Blacks frontrower was anticipating a demanding examination from a talented Canterbury lineup. Johnstone played the last of his 69 games for Canterbury in 2008 before heading offshore to play for French club Biarritz Olympique.
"Canterbury's always a class outfit . . . they're one of the best, so I won't be expecting anything less than a normal Canterbury first-class [performance]."
Keane and his assistant coach Leon MacDonald have settled on a predictable lineup for their season-opener, with fullback Tom Marshall, flankers Liam Squire and Gary Redmond and wing Mitchell Scott the only players not considered because of injury.
Otherwise, there is a balanced look to the side including newcomers Johnstone, lock Tevita Cavubati, No 8 Jordan Taufua, halfback Jeremy Su'a, first five-eighth Hayden Cripps and threequarters James Lowe, Bryce Heem and Peter Betham.
TASMAN: Robbie Malneek, Peter Betham, Bryce Heem, Andrew Goodman (captain), James Lowe, Hayden Cripps, Jeremy Su'a, Jordan Taufua, Shane Christie, Joe Wheeler, Tevita Cavubati, Filipo Levi, Campbell Johnstone, Quentin MacDonald, Sam Prattley. Substitutes: Francis Smith, Tim Perry, Vernon Fredericks, Tevita Koloamatangi, Steve Alfeld, Kieron Fonotia, George Millar.
CANTERBURY: Sean Maitland, Adam Whitelock, Robbie Fruean, Tom Taylor, Johnny McNicholl, Tyler Bleyendaal, Willi Heinz (captain), Nasi Manu, Matt Todd, Luke Whitelock, Dom Bird, Luke Katene, Nepo Laulala, Ben Funnell, Joe Moody. Substitutes: Codie Taylor, Paea Fa'anunu, Joel Everson, George Whitelock, Andy Ellis, Ryan Crotty, Telusa Veainu.
Where: Trafalgar Park
When: Tomorrow, 8.05pm
Referee: Richard Kelly (Taranaki)
TAB head-to-head odds: Canterbury $1.10, Tasman $6