Many of the players who helped Counties Manukau Steelers win the Ranfurly Shield last season will take the field this Thursday night for the opening game of this year's NPC.
Steelers coach Tana Umaga today named the team to play Taranaki, in which he gave the nod to Ahsee Tuala to start at first five-eighth. This left Baden Kerr to ride the pine.
Kerr, who wasn't able to play any games for the Blues this season because of injuries and broken fingers, would be joined on the bench by Crusaders forward Rey Lee-Lo.
The match was of significance for loose forward Jordan Taufua, who was making his debut for the Steelers, because it marked the 22-year-old's return to the province's red, black and white having last played for Counties Manukau as an under-16.
The Steelers' backline boasted a wealth of Super Rugby experience for the season opener with Augustine Pulu at halfback, Bundee Aki at second-five, Frank Halai and Toni Pulu on the wings and Sherwin Stowers at fullback.
Tim Nanai-Williams hasn't been named in the team as he was awaiting the birth of his first child.
Nanai-Williams and Augustine Pulu would be co-captains at the Steelers this year.
Prop Pauliasi Manu and loose forward Dan Hyatt would make their debuts for the Steelers along with reserves Sione Anga'aelangi, Sean Bagshaw and Onosa'i Auva'a who also played age group rugby for Counties Manukau, before establishing himself at Auckland and the Blues.
Counties would have nine days to recover from this season opening fixture before they played Otago in a Ranfurly Shield game on Saturday, August 23.
Counties Manukau: Sherwin Stowers, Frank Halai, Sam Vaka, Bundee Aki, Toni Pulu, Ahsee Tuala, Augustine Pulu (c), Jordan Taufua, Maama Vaipulu, Dan Hyatt, Jimmy Tupou, Ronald Raaymakers, Jarron Firth, Suliasi Taufalele, Pauliasi Manu. Reserves: Sione Anga'aelangi, Sean Bagshaw, Viliami Rarasea, Onosa'i Auva'a, Kane Hancy, Baden Kerr, Rey Lee-Lo.
What did you make of this year's ITM Cup?