Ahead of this week's national provincial championship, rugby writer David Long casts his eye over the premiership and championship squads and predicts which outfits will come out on top at the end of October.
Northland: Northland have always been a province known to take a gamble on an overseas player, remember Rupeni Caucaunibuca? Second year coach Adriaan Ferris has looked to replicate that history this year by signing Samoan fullback Fa'atoina Autagavaia and he'll join Rene Ranger in what could be a handy backline.
Orene Ai'i will give the side some much-needed experience, while David Hall and Tone Kopelani will improve the pack in what should be a not-too-bad season for the Taniwha.
Key player: Rene Ranger
Prediction: Third in championship
In: Orene Ai'i (Japan), Fa'atoina Autagavaia (Samoa), Dan Caprice (France), Tuineau Fa'asisila (Australia), Samisoni Fisilau (Counties Manukau), David Hall (Southland), Marvin Karawana (Wellington), Kapiolani Kaufusi (Manawatu), Tone Kopelani (France), David Morgan (Auckland), Jack Ram (Tonga), Hale T-Pole (Japan), Jack Whetton (Auckland).
Out: Aaron Bancroft (France), Mark Burman (Italy), Tim Dow (retired), Cam Eyre (Italy), Bryce Heem (Tasman), Joel McKenty (retired), Jack McPhee (France), Lachie Munro (France), Simon Munro (Japan), Jared Payne (Ireland), Marty Veale (USA)
North Harbour: 2011 was an appalling year for Harbour, winning just two games. But coach Liam Barry will look to stamp his mark on the team this season. Michael Hobbs at first-five will give the backs a good base to attack from, while Ben Afeaki should further establish himself as one of the best tighthead props in the country over the court of the competition. After a few years in the wilderness, Harbour look like finally getting back on track and could even earn promotion.
Key player: Ben Afeaki
Prediction: Championship winners
In: Viliami Fihaki (Counties Manukau), Michael Hobbs (Wellington), Salese Manu (Western Force), Apisalome Ratuniyarawa (Poverty Bay), Francis Saili (Auckland), James Semple (Counties Manukau).
Out: Ben Botica (Auckland), Jame King (Melbourne Rebels), Mat Luamanu (Japan), Luke McAlister (France), Mike Mayhew (England), Ken Pisi (England), Michael Reid (retired), Chris Smylie (Taranaki), Brent Wilson (England)
Auckland: One benefit of a disastrous season for the Blues is that plenty of young Auckland players have already had a taste at what rugby is like at that level and will take that experience back into provincial rugby.
Wayne Pivac is back coaching Auckland after an eight-year absence and once again is tasked with the job of bringing through a generation of talented young players. Don't be surprised if Pivac does it again.
Key player: Steven Luatua
Prediction: Premiership winners
In: Tony Fenner (Otago), Andrew Van der Heijden (England), Steve Fualau (Canterbury).
Out: Onosa'i Auva'a (England), Ash Dixon (Hawke's Bay), Piers Francis (Waikato), Chris Lowrey (Japan), Tevita Mailau (France), Toby Morland (Russia), Josevata Rokocoko (France), Francis Saili (North Harbour), Benson Stanley (France), Winston Stanley (Western Force), Isaia Toeava (Japan), Brent Ward (retired).
Counties Manukau: There will be a couple of Steelers players with a serious point to prove this season. Fritz Lee, at the Chiefs, and Sherwin Stowers, at the Blues, struggled to get game time for their franchises, but both are quality players in need of Super Rugby contracts next year.
There will be plenty of interest in how Kenyan lock/loose forward Daniel Adongo goes, while the signing of former Samoa captain Mahonri Schwalger is an astute move.
Key player: Mahonri Schwalger
Prediction: Fourth in championship
In: Daniel Adongo (South Africa), Frank Halai (Waikato), Mahonri Schwalger (Taranaki)
Out: Viliami Fihaki (North Harbour), Saimisoni Fisilau (Northland), Tasesa Lavea (retired), Siala Piutau (Japan), James Semple (North Harbour), Niva Ta'auso (Japan) Taiasina Tuifua (England).
Waikato: Waikato have lost more experienced players than other provinces this year, but coach Chris Gibbes is confident that there is some real talent coming through. The Mooloos have managed to eke another season out of former All Blacks flanker Marty Holah, while they can thank their lucky stars that Tawera Kerr Barlow, pictured, didn't make it into the All Blacks.
Key player: Tawera Kerr-Barlow
Prediction: Seventh in premiership
In: Piers Francis (Auckland), Semisi Masirewa (Manawatu)
Out: Malcolm Barnes (England), Aled de Malmanche (France), Stephen Donald (England), Frank Halai (Counties Manukau), Toby Lynn (Western Force), Sitiveni Sivivatu (France), Henry Speight (Brumbies), Nathan White (Ireland).
Bay of Plenty: Sam Cane is unlikely to feature much for the Steamers because of his All Blacks commitments, but in Tanerau Latimer and Luke Braid Bay of Plenty will still be able to boast one of the best backrows in the competition.
There is enough depth in the Bay of Plenty squad to keep them clear of a relegation fight, but it's doubtful whether they're title contenders.
Key player: Luke Braid
Prediction: Fifth in premiership
In: Mike Kainga (Wellington), Mafi Kefu (France), Kenny Lynn (Southland), Brodie Retallick (Hawke's Bay)
Out: Luke Andrews (retired), Colin Bourke (Japan), Steve Kefu (Australia), Taniela Moa (France), Leighton Price (Taranaki), Dan Waenga (Hawke's Bay).
Hawke's Bay: In recent years the Magpies have been serious challengers to the bigger provinces and the union has been a hotbed for creating All Blacks. But there has been a huge turnover of players for this season and the likes of Sona Taumalolo, Dan Kirkpatrick, Khan Fotuali'i and Brodie Retallick will be sorely missed.
Key player: Zac Guildford
Prediction: Sixth in premiership
In: Mitch Alcock (Canterbury), Adrian Barone (Wellington), Peter Borlase (Ireland), Kieran Coll (Canterbury), Ash Dixon (Auckland), Ross Kennedy (South Africa), Penikolo Latu (Poverty Bay), Jesse MacDonald (Netherlands), Nick McLennan (Canterbury), Johan Schoonbee (South Africa), Dan Waenga (Bay of Plenty)
Out: Bryn Evans (England), Hikairo Forbes (France), Khan Fotuali'i (Wales), Mark Jackman (Canterbury), Dan Kirkpatrick (France), Kas Lealamanua (Wellington), Ryan McLeod (Australia), Logovi'i Mulipola (England), Anthony Perenise (England), Brodie Retallick (Bay of Plenty), Sinoti Sinoti (Italy), Sona Taumalolo (France), Kane Thompson (Japan), Tu Umaga-Marshall (Japan), Brad Weber (Otago)
Taranaki: There will be the old issue of juggling Ranfurly Shield defences with battling for competition points for Taranaki coach Colin Cooper to deal with this seaon, but such is the quality of his squad that this won't be a problem.
Beauden Barrett should have another outstanding season at first-five, while with Jason Eaton, Craig Clarke and James Broadhurst they have an abundance of talent in the second row.
Key player: Beauden Barrett
Prediction: Third in premiership
In: James Marshall (Tasman), Leighton Price (Bay of Plenty), Nemia Soqeta (Japan), Chris Smylie (North Harbour)
Out: Tyson Keats (Italy), George Pisi (England), Mahonri Schwalger (Counties Manukau), Ben Souness (retired), Samuela Vunisa (Italy)
Manawatu: It is tough for any province to lose a coach of the quality of Dave Rennie, but Jason O'Halloran should be more than capable of taking over. However, the big question is whether he'll have enough talent. Last year's championship finalists will have to manage without Aaron Cruden and Aaron Smith this year, two players pivotal to their success.
Key player: Nick Crosswell
Prediction: Fifth in championship
In: Eric Fry (USA), Nathan George (Waikato), George Tilsley (Wellington), Wharewera (Bay of Plenty)
Out: Peni Kaufusi (Northland), Johnny Leota (England), Casey Stone (injured), Isaac Thompson (injured), Doug Tietjens (injured)
Wellington: Finishing sixth in last year's premiership was a pretty ordinary situation for a union as big as Wellington to be in, and this season incoming coach Chris Boyd will have to cope without Brad Shields, TJ Perenara, Faifili Levave all season and Lima Sopoaga for most of it.
Tim Bateman will slot into the No 10 jersey in Sopoaga's absence, but it's difficult to see the Lions being challengers in 2012.
Key player: Tim Bateman
Prediction: Fourth in premiership
In: Tim Bateman (Japan), Ross Filipo (England), Fa'atonu Fili (Japan), Lua Lokotui (Japan), Genesis Mamea (Italy), Tomasi Palu (Romania)
Out: Jacob Ellison (Otago), Michael Hobbs (North Harbour), Steve Honey (Bay of Plenty), Faifili Levave (Japan), Api Naikatini (Japan), Brad Shields (injured), Apoua Stewart (Australia), Neemia Tialata (France), Piri Weepu (Auckland)
Tasman: Last year's wooden spooners have lost a bunch of experienced campaigners for 2012 so it should be another long campaign for those at the top of the South Island. Former All Blacks prop Campbell Johnstone should add some more solidity to the scrum though and wing Bryce Heem is a handy signing from Northland.
Key player: Campbell Johnstone
Prediction: Seventh in championship
In: Peter Betham (Australia), Tevita Cavubati (Fiji), Hayden Cripps (Wellington), Bryce Heem (Northland), Campbell Johnstone (France), Jordan Tuafua (Canterbury), Jeremy Sua (Australia)
Out: Mark Bright (England), Hamish Cochrane (West Coast), Ben Franks (Canterbury), Pablo Huete (France), James Marshall (Taranaki), Willie McGoon (Canterbury), Fai Mika (France), Lucky Mulipola (Canterbury), Jonathan Poff (England), Jack Umaga (Japan)
Canterbury: For this year's coach Tabai Matson there is only one way he can take Canterbury, and that's down. Rob Penney guided the province to four championships in a row. But Matson has dutifully served his apprenticeship under Penney and is ready to take over the reins. The squad is packed full of Super Rugby experience and should make the final again.
Key player: Corey Flynn
Prediction: Premiership runner-up
In: Mark Jackman (Hawke's Bay)
Out: Steve Fualau (Auckland), Ash Parker (Japan), Brad Thorn (Japan)
Otago: For the first time in a while, the off field issues can be put to the side and Otago can focus on playing again. The province went nowhere and spent too much under Phil Mooney as their coach, but local legend Tony Brown has looked to build from the ground up through the club scene this year. Don't expect much in the way of results, but some promising signs for the future.
Key player: Rob Verbakel
Prediction: Sixth in championship
In: Jacob Ellison (Wellington), Tamati Ellison (Japan), Shota Horie (Japan), Fumiaki Tanaka (Japan), Brad Weber (Hawke's Bay)
Out: Ben Atiga (Scotland), Halani Aulika (England), Tony Brown (retired), Daniel Crichton (Auckland), Tom Donnelly (Japan), Tony Fenner (Auckland), Sam Giddens (Hawke's Bay), Jason Macdonald (retired), Kees Meeuws (retired), Daniel Ramsay (France), Sean Romans (England)
Southland: Although the Stags were relegated from the premiership last year, they have still been able to keep a handy squad together and it will be one last swansong season for Jimmy Cowan before he heads overseas. Jamie Mackintosh's strong leadership and playing ability will be needed in a front row that has lost David Hall and Chris King, but the southern men are sure to be contenders.
Key player: Jimmy Cowan
Prediction: Championship runnerup
In: Hoani MacDonald (Melbourne Rebels), Nemia Kenatale (Fiji)
Out: Tom Chamberlain (Melbourne Rebels), David Hall (Northland), Glen Horton, Chris King (Taranaki) Tony Koonwaiyou (Auckland), Kendrick Lynn (Bay of Plenty), Joe Tuineau (France), James Wilson (England)
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