Their opposition may come from the lower end of the NPC pecking order, but their team selection shows that the Tasman Mako are taking nothing for granted on Sunday.
The Mako’s opponents in their first two Mitre 10 Cup games could not have been further apart on the 2017 table. After hosting the reigning champion Canterbury side in the first match of their Lansdowne Park double-header to open the 2018 season, Tasman entertain the Southland Stags, NPC cellar-dwellers last year, on Sunday.
Despite the disparate pedigree and recent form of their respective opponents, Mako head coach Leon MacDonald explained that there would be no complacency.
"We will treat them with the same respect as we do Canterbury, or anyone in fact, because this competition has shown that if you take anybody lightly you will get tripped up. We expect a really spirited Southland team.
Loosehead prop Ryan Coxon, left, replaces Wyatt Crockett in the starting line-up.
"I mentioned to the team this week that it was games like this where Tasman started. As a bottom-dweller we used to play Canterbury and we got pretty excited about the opportunity to trip them up … so we have to bring our A game every week.”
It must have been tempting for the Mako selectors to make a raft of changes to the side that tipped over the Red Blacks 25-17, but they have opted for a more conservative approach.
David Havili will again lead the Mako at Lansdowne Park.
Up front they have made just one switch, loose head prop Ryan Coxon coming in veteran Wyatt Crockett, who fronted up for 80 minutes on Friday. The other change was injury-enforced, unfortunate No 8 Vernon Fredericks being replaced by rising star Isaiah Miller, a youngster with strong family connections to Southland rugby.
The backline is also familiar, the only difference coming in the 10 jersey, with Waitohi first five Tim O’Malley replacing Mitch Hunt.
MacDonald explained the rationale behind his call to retain the bulk of the incumbents.
"We are searching for cohesion within the group, so we have resisted wholesale changes.”
The decision to rest Crockett and Hunt was straightforward. "They are both coming off pretty decent Super Rugby seasons, played big minutes last week and have a few slight niggles to contend with.
"It was an opportunity to give a couple of other guys a go and bring some new energy into the team as well.”
Miller’s inclusion was seen as just reward for a young man who has made all the right moves this season. "He’s a product of Marlborough Boys’ College and the Academy system and performed well for his club and in the high performance programme.
"It’s a big game for him, he has family from Southland so it’s a perfect debut for him … I’m looking forward to seeing how he goes,” added MacDonald.
While their win over Canterbury earned the Mako a perfect start to their season, MacDonald said there had been no need to bring the team down to earth and it had been "business as usual” in the camp this week.
"Getting a nine-day turnaround has been amazing, we have been able to add polish and get some clarity to a lot of areas that weren’t that flash on Friday … so it’s been a good learning week for us.”
In the first round of the 2018 Mitre 10 Cup the Stags, winless last season, were beaten 31-10 by Hawke’s Bay in Invercargill, underlining the fact that a win over Tasman would constitute a huge upset.
However, the men from the deep south have classy individuals such as halfback Jay Renton, utility back James Wilson, hooker Flynn Thomas, lock Manaaki Selby-Rickit and hard-nosed loosie Tony Lamborn in their ranks and, although well beaten on Sunday, had enough ball to create problems.
Teams for Sunday’s game, which kicks off at 2.05pm.
Mako: 1 Ryan Coxon, 2 Andrew Makalio, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 4 Pari Pari Parkinson, 5 Quinten Strange, 6 Ethan Blackadder, 7 Jed Brown, 8 Isaiah Miller; 9 Jack Grooby, 10 Tim O’Malley, 11 Solomon Alaimalo, 12 David Havili (captain), 13 Levi Aumua, 14 Jamie Spowart, 15 Will Jordan.
Reserves: Ray Niuia, Wyatt Crockett, Blair Prinsep, Mike Curry, Sione Havili, Ben Finau, Mitchell Hunt, Alex Nankivell.
Southland: 1 Shaun Stodart, 2 Flynn Thomas (co-captain), 3 Morgan Mitchell, 4 Ben Fotheringham, 5 Manaaki Selby-Rickit, 6 Wade McRae, 7 Phil Halder, 8 Tony Lamborn; 9 Jay Renton, 10 James Wilson (co-captain), 11 Lewis Ormond, 12 Matt Johnson, 13 Aleki Morris-Lome, 14 Isaac Te Tamaki, 15 Tauasosi Tuimavave.
Reserves: Andrew Ready, Joe Walsh, Chris Apoua, Ray Tatafu, Bill Fukofuka, Nico Costa, Broc Hooper, Jackson Ormond. Coach: Dave Hewett.
By PETER JONES [Marlborough App]