Nervy start beckons for Wellington and Waikato
Calming nerves and gaining parity at scrum time will be Wellington's dual challenge when they open their national provincial championship campaign against Waikato at Westpac Stadium tonight.
Doubts over the fitness of Lions loose head Reggie Goodes, who sat out training on Thursday, have added to an air of uncertainty at Newtown's Rugby League Park.
Pre-season injuries have already brought Wellington back to the provincial pack and the noisy and constant chatter at training this week spoke of both enthusiasm and nervous energy.
Losing Goodes would be unhelpful in containing Waikato's giant tighthead Ben Tameifuna, who is part of a solid Waikato front row including Highlanders rake Brayden Mitchell and powerful Chiefs development prop Loni Uhila.
Wellington coach Chris Boyd has fire power in the loose forwards and backs, but a raw looking tight five including three players on debut in 18-year-old hooker Leni Apisai, and locks James Wall and Christian Lloyd.
''Leni is the youngest of them, but there are seven guys on debut [in the 23], so its a great opportunity for all of them,'' Boyd said.
''It's a hell of an exciting time. Yep, we have some injuries, but there are a bunch of Wellington boys out there with the opportunity to play for their province, which is great.
''Whether some of them are ready to play at the levels they are right now will remain to be seen. Normally you would put them in around a whole lot of experienced guys. Now we've put them all in together, so its going to be a real challenge for them.''
More than anything Boyd will be hoping his young pack can provide enough front foot ball for late call up Fa'atonu Fili to successfully steer the ship from first five-eighth.
''An awful lot of experience and a hell of a big bag of tricks,'' Boyd said, when asked about a player who came into the side only last week after Riki Flutey's season ended with a hamstring tear.
''You have to remember Tons has played international football [for Samoa]. He's been a bit of a rugby gypsy at times, but he's a very good player.
''One of the battles we've talked to Tons about is he needs to try and curb his instinctiveness and play within the frame work where he can, but there will be times when his little bag of tricks will come in handy as long as he uses it at the right time.''
Which effectively means when the Lions can get front foot ball or clean set piece possession.
Fili will be keen to get the ball to fullback Jason Woodward and wing Ambrose Curtis in space, but not before sending ball runners like captain and No 8 Brad Shields, Lloyd and dynamic blindside Vaea Fifita toward his Waikato opposite Damian McKenzie.
McKenzie played fullback for the New Zealand under 20s this year and looks a star in the making, but, like Fili, isn't the most physical player in the competition.
Many are writing Waikato off this season, but their youth is a little misleading.
Players like fullback Albert Nikoro (Blues) and midfielders Anton Lienert-Brown and Jordan Payne are new to the provincial scene, but already have Super Rugby experience.
Wings Declan O'Donnell and Joe Webber provide attacking finish, while 38-year-old openside Marty Holah's presence in the reserves is sure to add some second half teak.
Incredibly, from the respective teams that started in the first match of last season, Wellington has just five survivors including two on the reserves from the team who played Counties-Manukau, while Waikato has just three of the men who played Northland.
A close fought match beckons.
It may come down to which of two young teams settles the nerves first.
AT A GLANCE
Wellington v Waikato
Venue: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Sky Sport 1, 6.30pm, tonight
Referee: Shane McDermott
TAB odds: Wellington $1.22, Waikato $4
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.
The Dominion Post