Wellington coach Chris Boyd has unveiled a powerful training squad including 15 current Super rugby players ahead of this year's national provincial competition.
Former All Black lock Ross Filipo and five members of this year's New Zealand under-20s backs highlight a blend of youth and experience that will make the Lions one of the competition favourites.
The forward pack is particularly impressive. Highlanders openside Scott Fuglistaller and Filipo, who last played for Wellington in 2008, complement an otherwise Hurricanes-strength eight.
A host of age-grade stars include the Oriental Rongotai trio of outside backs Matt Proctor and Ambrose Curtis and flanker Ardie Savea, Norths prop Eric Sione, and Poneke lock Joe Latta.
And there is a distinctly local feel to the group, with former Cantabrian Tim Bateman the only player completely new to the Wellington region this season.
Former Hawke's Bay lock Lua Lokotui returned from Japan to play for Marist St Pats, but his family has been living in the capital for some years.
And Tongan World Cup halfback Tomasi Palu has returned from a stint in Romania with some strong club form for Northern United.
The final ITM Cup squad, which must be a minimum of 26 players, won't be finalised until August 20, just four days before the Lions' first match of the season, against Manawatu in Palmerston North.
Highlanders Shaun Treeby and Lima Sopoaga are back in Wellington colours, though the latter will miss the first part of the competition as he continues to recover from a shoulder injury.
That leaves the Lions vulnerable at first five-eighth, where Bateman is set to get first crack, while halfback TJ Perenara's ankle injury means Frae Wilson is the only established No 9.
"It's a little light on experience at 8, 9 and 10, so that's the concern I guess," Boyd said. "Tim Bateman's clearly a very good foot- baller, but he hasn't played as lot at 10, so one of him, Fa'atonu [Fili] or Seminar [Manu] will be the 10s."
Both Fili, a former Samoan test player, and Manu, a Southland representative, have plenty of experience.
At No 8, the loss of Brad Shields (knee) and Faifili Levave (Japan) means there is not an obvious option at the back of the scrum.
Fuglistaller, or a returning Serge Lilo could fill the void, while Hutt Old Boys' South African loosie Deon Carney, Wainuiomata's Genesis Mamea and Tawa's Kaipati Gaualofa are all abrasive ball runners.
Wellington had the chance to draft in more experienced players, but had decided to focus on local talent, Boyd said.
A number of players will not be well known outside Wellington.
In the backs Wainui fullback Faatau Mamea has run nice lines off his midfield in the Jubilee Cup this season, while Upper Hutt's Kayne Hammington is a sharp running halfback. MSP prop Solomona Sakalia is an immense talent held back by injury in recent seasons and clubmate Liu Taituave a hardworking hooker.
Wellington Lions wider training squad Hookers: Dane Coles (Poneke), Motu Matu'u (Oriental-Rongotai), Liu Taituave (Marist St Pats). Props: Reggie Goodes (Poneke), Solomona Sakalia (Marist St Pats), Arden David-Perrot (Marist St Pats), Jeffery Toomaga-Allen (Marist St Pats), Whetu Henry (Oriental-Rongotai), Eric Sione (Northern United). Locks: Jeremy Thrush (Hutt Old Boys Marist), Mark Reddish (Oriental-Rongotai), Ross Filipo (Petone* TBC), Lua Lokotui (Marist St Pats), Joe Latta (Poneke). Loose forwards: Scott Fuglistaller (Wests Roosters), Serge Lilo (Northern United), Ardie Savea (Oriental-Rongotai), Genesis Mamea (Wainuiomata), Deon Carney (Hutt Old Boys Marist), Kaipati Gaualofa (Tawa). Halfbacks: Frae Wilson (Wainuiomata), Kayne Hammington (Upper Hutt), Tomasi Palu (Northern United). First five-eighths: Tim Bateman (Old Boys University), Seminar Manu (Old Boys University), Fa'atonu Fili (Marist St Pats). Midfield: Shaun Treeby (Tawa), Ope Peleseuma (Hutt Old Boys Marist), Alapati Leiua (Northern United) Charlie Ngatai (Poneke). Outside backs: Matt Proctor (Oriental-Rongotai), Jason Woodward (Upper Hutt), Ambrose Curtis (Oriental-Rongotai), Faatau Mamea (Wainuiomata). Also included, but injured: TJ Perenara (Northern United), Lima Sopoaga (Old Boys University).
- © Fairfax NZ News
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