Star Makos primed to return for big season
The Tasman Makos should take some degree of confidence with them into this season's ITM Cup rugby campaign with 21 of their 2013 championship-winning squad already confirmed for this year.
Tasman are now set to start in the ITM Cup's premiership for the first time after beating Hawke's Bay in last year's championship final at Trafalgar Park. So there'll already be plenty of familiarity among an established core of players ahead of the new representative season, which is scheduled to kick off on Thursday, August 14.
Of those 21 players, 10 of them are currently involved with Super 15 franchises. Tim Perry and Kieron Fonotia are part of the Crusaders' squad, with Fonotia coming off the bench to score the crucial try in Saturday's win over the Stormers, while Joe Wheeler and Shane Christie are based in Dunedin with the Highlanders.
Liam Squire, Tevita Koloamatangi, Tom Marshall and James Lowe are with the Hamilton-based Chiefs and Marty Banks and Billy Guyton are with the Hurricanes in Wellington.
According to Tasman rugby boss Tony Lewis, the union was granted dispensation by the New Zealand rugby Union to increase its salary cap from $779,000 to $865,000 for this year's competition.
And while the union still has some work ahead of it to secure the necessary funding, Lewis said that the squad's 32-player quota means there will be plenty of opportunity for fringe players to impress in this year's club competition.
"If you look at the 21 players that have been signed, there's genuine opportunity [for club players] in the props, second row, back row, five-eighths and outside backs," Lewis said.
"So for the first time for a long time, performances in club football will dictate if [players] will get a contract. There's also those players who have been released going back into club football trying to force their way back in. I think that's probably even more heightened by the fact that the emphasis this year in club football will be the Tasman Trophy."
A change in format this season will include a full round-robin competition between all six Nelson Bays and six Marlborough clubs.
"The expectation is, if you look at the number of players that have come into the area, they see Tasman as a place to come, not for just lifestyle and work, but as an opportunity to make the Makos."
Last year's starting tighthead prop and Tongan international, Sila Puafisi, has been released to English club Gloucester. However, the union is showing plenty of interest in 30-year-old 120kg South African tighthead Ross Geldenhuys, who has played Super Rugby for the Lions, Bulls and Southern Kings.
Puafisi's one of eight players released from last season's squad, with flanker Gary Redmond now playing his club rugby in Ashburton and former Samoan international No 8 George Stowers not returning.
English midfielder Andy Symons is currently back with the Worcester club although the door remains open for him to return to the Tasman club competition.
Backs Kaide Whiting and Hayden Cripps and forwards Reuben Northover and Francis Smith will also be closely monitored throughout the club season, which starts in 10 days.
SIGNED Quentin MacDonald, Vernon Fredericks, Jesse MacDonald, Siua Halanukonuka, Tim Perry, Joe Wheeler, Alex Ainley, Tevita Cavubati, Shane Christie, Liam Squire, Tevita Koloamatangi, Billy Guyton, Mark Swanepoel, Marty Banks, Tom Marshall, Kieron Fonotia, Mike Wells, Mitchell Scott, Robbie Malneek, Bryce Heem, James Lowe.