Lack of experience may be telling for Stags
Stags head coach David Henderson has left the door open for those hoping to wear the maroon jersey this season but, realistically, this year's players will probably come from the 29-strong wider training group announced yesterday.
Anyone expecting a bolter will be disappointed, with one of the bright notes from a bum 2011 season, where Southland slipped from the premiership down into the championship, being that a number of young players got an opportunity to show their wares at NPC level.
"It's something we spoke about [with the players]. Last year we had a number of senior pros and then we had a void in regards to experience," Henderson said.
"In hindsight, you have a year that you probably aren't that happy with, but you develop some players and get some experience under their belts."
The Stags have good depth in some positions, especially at halfback where the welcome return of Jimmy Cowan has given them an embarrassment of riches in the No 9 jersey.
Along with the 50-test All Black is his younger brother, Scott, Fijian international Nemia Kenatale and young Star halfback Tayler Adams, who has some big raps on him.
Henderson said Adams would profit immensely from being in the same environment as Cowan, who might not see out the entire season.
Just when Cowan will be required by his new English club Gloucester is unclear, although it would surely not be until after he's achieved the six games he needs to become the province's latest centurion. Henderson said Cowan wouldn't just be hanging around to pick up his 100th game, however.
"He's here for a certain period of time, but I don't know what that period is," he said.
"It's definitely not just about getting the games under the belt and then heading off, he wants to hang around for as long as he can."
The loss of No 8 Elliot Dixon remains a concern leading into next week's first pre-season game, against Canterbury in Oamaru.
Henderson has been looking for a short-term replacement, but has been unsuccessful so far.
He had a coffee with Tom Chamberlain, a handy fill-in last year, when the Melbourne Rebels played the Highlanders in Invercargill earlier in the year, but hadn't heard from the former North Harbour loose forward since.
Though Michael Fatialofa showed some good pace ranging wide during the Galbraith Shield final on Saturday, he was not an option for a shift from the second row, Henderson said.
"At No 8 we are still a little lean in regards to a loose forward. There's potentially a couple of No 8s who are playing club rugby [in Southland] but their age and their conditioning for playing at ITM Cup level are not quite there," he said. "I don't want to put people in there and then break them. Elliot is available about three or four games into the competition so I just need another loose forward to fit into the mix and unfortunately I haven't found that yet."
Centre is also a problem area following Kendrick Lynn's shift to Bay of Plenty, but Henderson at least has some options there.
"The feelers are out for a centre too. [Locally] there's Matt Saunders there, Cardiff Vaega. In the back of my mind, potentially Robbie [Robinson] could be a centre too, but I haven't talked to him about that."
Loose forward Alex Taylor has struggled with injury over the past two seasons but was involved in yesterday's squad announcement, Henderson said.
Along with Adams and Kenatale, newcomers from last year include Junior Ngaluafe, Aston Talaia and Tua Talemaitoga.
Hoani Macdonald returns to the Stags for the first time since 2008, following stints in Wales and Melbourne.
Southland training squad: Tayler Adams, Nicholas Barrett, Josh Bekhuis, Tim Boys, Tim Conforth, Jimmy Cowan, Scott Cowan, Elliot Dixon, Scott Eade, Michael Fatialofa, John Hardie, Nemia Kenatale, Hoani Macdonald, Jamie Mackintosh, Marty McKenzie, Brayden Mitchell, Ben Nally, Junior Ngaluafe, Micheal Peterson, Kade Poki, Tuki Raimona, Robbie Robertson, Jason Rutledge, Alex Ryan, Matt Saunders, Aston Talaia, Tua Talemaitoga, Cardiff Vaega, Mark Wells
The Southland Times