Livewire halfback Brad Weber has been named the new Waikato captain for the upcoming national championship, while former All Black Marty Holah will also front for the Mooloos this year.
Coach Johnny Walters yesterday named a 31-man squad which features 13 uncapped players, most of whom have been rewarded on the back of their excellent club form.
With last year's captains Matt Vant Leven (Japan), Jackson Willison (France) and Toby Smith (Melbourne) having departed, Walters, in his second year in charge, has opted for 23-year-old Weber as skipper. The slightly-built No 9 debuted for Waikato last year after a season with Otago and has also featured for the Chiefs in Super Rugby this season.
He will have 37-year-old Holah to lean on for experience, with the openside flanker back in the mix after some great performances for his Hamilton Marist club. The 36-test All Black was an advisor for the Waikato side last year, having played for the team from 1999-2007, as well as in 2011.
Lock Sam Kilgour is unlucky to miss out, with David Morgan (Northland) and Luke Katene (Canterbury) both returning to the province and boosting the second row stocks.
Chiefs prop Josh Hohneck comes back after five years at Bay of Plenty, while another former Chiefs prop, James McGougan, is back after featuring for East Coast last year.
The backline will have a rather new look to it, with seven of the 13 yet to appear for Waikato.
Tim Mikkelson will be tied up fulltime with sevens, while Highlanders squad member Trent Renata is set to play for Otago, with Waikato replacing him with the Blues' Albert Nikoro.
Jordan Payne and Anton Lienert-Brown both haven't played NPC, yet have debuted for the Chiefs this year, while Declan O'Donnell returns after missing last year's championship with injury.
Damian McKenzie, currently with the New Zealand Under-20 side in the Junior World Championship, will provide spark at first five-eighth.
All Blacks Liam Messam and Tawera Kerr-Barlow are expected to unavailable for the duration of Waikato's season due to their international commitments.
One more player is to be added to the squad with another five to be included in a wider training group at a later date.
"We are pleased to be able to name this squad early to give us the best lead in possible for the 2014 ITM Cup," Walters said.
"I am looking forward to getting this group together and working hard over the next couple of months so we hit the season running."
Waikato finished fifth in the seven-team premiership last year, for a second straight time.
They will have three pre-season matches this year - against North Harbour in Raglan (July 30), Taranaki in Hamilton (August 2) and Hawke's Bay in Napier (August 9) - before kicking off their campaign away to Wellington on August 16.
AT A GLANCE
2014 Waikato NPC Squad Forwards: Adam Burn, Whetu Douglas, Hame Faiva, Josh Hohneck, Zak Hohneck, Marty Holah, Zane Kapeli, Luke Katene, James McGougan, Brayden Mitchell, David Morgan, Nick Ross, Jacob Skeen, Ben Tameifuna, James Tucker, Josh Tyrell, Loni Uhila, Joe Walsh. Backs: Dylan Collier, Wharenui Hawera, Harrison Levien, Anton Lienert-Brown, Troy Lobendahn, Semisi Masirewa, Damian McKenzie, Albert Nikoro, Declan O'Donnell, Jordan Payne, Regan Ware, Joe Webber, Brad Weber (captain).
- Waikato Times
Who was the best-performed All Blacks forward on the northern tour?