Young Waikato team will be looking to hit their straps early, AARON GOILE reports.
A new-look Waikato team will be out to make a statement tonight.
Opening their NPC campaign away to Wellington at Westpac Stadium, the visitors' young cattle will be keen to show that they're up to the task.
Coach Johnny Walters is in his second season, though this was his first chance to pick the players he wanted, having come in at short notice last year.
But with a raft of experienced troops leaving the province, Walters has been forced into working with a very green-looking squad. There are five debutants in the starting XV, with another three on the bench, but he's confident they have the goods.
''We're in a bit of a transition phase,'' Walters said.
''And we signed these guys on with every intention of them starting this first game and playing the full ITM Cup, so I'm really comfortable they'll cope with the game.''
Earning their first caps in the red, yellow and black are lock David Morgan (who has previously played for Northland), first five-eighth Damian McKenzie (a rising star who has shone for the New Zealand Under-20s), midfielders Anton Lienert-Brown and Jordan Payne (who both debuted for the Chiefs this season) and fullback Albert Nikoro (who has played for Tasman and the Blues).
And on the bench the uncapped trio are prop James McGougan (who has previously played for the Chiefs, Bay of Plenty and Otago) halfback Harrison Levien and outside back Shayne Anderson.
Walters described his new players as ''very mature, level-headed and smart guys''.
''They are young, but they're quality characters and special rugby players. I'm excited to see them go. They've gone really well in the pre-season, we've got them all together on the park at the same time now.''
It's been a couple of lean years for Waikato, who twice finished fifth in the premiership, and although there isn't much expectation on them, a playoffs spot should still be a realistic target.
Their pre-season form didn't indicate anything special was building, but Walters felt they achieved clarity around their structures and blooded players well.
Waikato will have to hit their straps pretty smartly, with runners-up Wellington followed by six-time defending champions Canterbury, then their midweek game coming early. This all adds up to four matches in 15 days to open the season.
''We got a lot of our technical stuff nailed early in the pre-season and we've managed to load our guys up in terms of our strength and conditioning to allow us to be able to freshen them up now,'' Walters said.
But for now the team's sole focus is tonight's match against an opponent who have proved tricky in recent times - Waikato have lost five of their past seven games against Wellington.
The hosts are $1.22 favourites at the TAB but have a major injury crisis on their hands, with half their contracted squad unavailable.
A late call to former Samoan international Fa'atonu Fili, who was set to play for Poverty Bay, will see him return to the capital to run the cutter at first-five in a team featuring seven debutants in the 22.
There are also late doubts over the fitness of prop Reggie Goodes, who sat out training on Thursday.
But despite the concerns in the capital, Walters isn't expecting the task to be much easier for his side.
''You can't forget that they're a pretty proud province down there and they've really got a promote-from-within type philosophy,'' he said. ''So no matter who they roll out, they're going to roll out guys that are passionate and play for their jersey. We're going down there expecting a pretty tough game against one of the best in the competition.''
With three of Wellington's debutants being in the tight five, Waikato, led by hulking Chiefs prop Ben Tameifuna, will sniff an opportunity to set things up for their exciting backline.
Captain Brad Weber is a livewire from halfback, McKenzie has the nous to direct the side well around the paddock, and if they have front-foot ball, then the speed of wingers Declan O'Donnell and Joe Webber will provide fine firepower to finish out wide.
AT A GLANCE
NPC, Rd 1
Wellington v Waikato
Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Wellington: Jason Woodward, Ambrose Curtis, Ope Peleseuma, Shaun Treeby, Tau Mamea, Fa'atonu Fili, Jared Kahu, Brad Shields (c), Adam Hill, Vaea Fifita, Christian Lloyd, James Wall, Eric Sione, Leni Apisai, Reggie Goodes. Reserves: James O'Reilly, Tolu Fahamokioa, Taniela Koroi, Henry Stowers, Sheridan Rangihuna, Wes Goosen, James So'oialo.
Waikato: Albert Nikoro, Declan O'Donnell, Jordan Payne, Anton Lienert-Brown, Joe Webber, Damian McKenzie, Brad Weber (c), Adam Burn, Zak Hohneck, Whetu Douglas, David Morgan, Nick Ross, Ben Tameifuna, Brayden Mitchell, Loni Uhila. Reserves: Hame Faiva, James McGougan, Josh Tyrell, Marty Holah, Harrison Levien, Wharenui Hawera, Shayne Anderson.
Referee: Shane McDermott.
- Waikato Times
What did you make of this year's ITM Cup?