Tasman, Hawke's Bay battle full of importance
As a season-opening match-up for both teams, today's NPC clash between the Tasman Makos and Hawke's Bay Magpies in Blenheim is brimming with significance.
Many of the players involved won't have to cast their minds back too far to recall last year's championship final in Nelson when Tasman held on under mounting late pressure to beat the Magpies 26-25 and earn promotion to this year's premiership.
Tasman at least have the luxury of calling on the bulk of last season's winning combination and coaches Kieran Keane and Leon MacDonald have chosen a powerful Makos team for today's encounter containing all 10 current Super Rugby players.
The forwards are predictable, with Highlanders flanker Shane Christie joined by the Chiefs duo of Liam Squire and Tevita Koloamatangi as the starting loose forward trio.
Captain Christie and Squire will be making their first starts for Tasman this year as their participation at the recent All Blacks training camp - where both impressed - precluded any involvement with the Makos' pre-season campaign.
Highlanders lock Joe Wheeler also returns for his first Makos start of the season and joins Alex Ainley as an experienced second row combination.
New tighthead prop Ross Geldenhuys joins established hooker Quentin MacDonald and loosehead prop Tim Perry in a solid front row.
However, there are a couple of suprises among the backs.
Marty Banks has recovered from a knee injury to be named in the No 10 jersey while James Lowe will fill the fullback berth, as he did in last year's final.
Billy Guyton predictably gets the nod at halfback ahead of former All Black Jimmy Cowan.
Hawke's Bay aren't short of talent and experience.
ll the Bay backline, except livewire winger Mikey Vuicakau, have played Super Rugby, with Robbie Fruean debuting for his new province at centre.
Halves Chris Eaton and Ihaia West were key figures in the 2013 championship final, West in particular a handful for any defence and a superb goalkicker.
Up front, Hawke's Bay's success has been based on a forward pack of hard workers rather than big names.
Skipper Brendon O'Connor, at openside flanker, enjoyed a top season with the Blues and epitomises their hard-nosed approach, as does No 8 Gareth Evans, a standout with the Highlanders.
Despite starting off Tasman's bench, Cowan can't wait to get into the action.
"They'll be tough no doubt," Cowan said.
"I think we've counted that they've got 16 Super players, which is a hell of a lot, and they play an interesting game. They've got some big boys and the likes of Robbie Fruean and Andrew Horrell in midfield, then you've got the young guys in Ihaia West and Alby Mathewson in the halves, so they'll be very sharp.
"A lot of the boys have played against them before and know what they're about, so we know it's going to be a stiff challenge. But it's one we're looking forward to."
Meanwhile, Northland host Manawatu in today's second fixture.
Tasman Makos: Tim Perry, Quentin MacDonald, Ross Geldenhuys, Alex Ainley, Joe Wheeler, Tevita Koloamatangi, Shane Christie (captain), Liam Squire; Billy Guyton, Marty Banks, Mitchell Scott, Tom Marshall, Kieron Fonotia, Bryce Heem, James Lowe. Reserves: Jesse MacDonald, Siosuia Halanukonuka, Tevita Cavubati, Vernon Fredericks, Jimmy Cowan, David Havili, Ben Tyler.
Hawke's Bay Magpies: Brendon Edmonds, Ash Dixon, Jason Marshall, Mike Allardice, Mark Abbott, Trent Boswell-Wakefield, Brendon O'Connor (captain), Gareth Evans; Chris Eaton, Ihaia West, Mikey Vuicakau, Andrew Horrell, Robbie Fruean, Richard Buckman, Ryan Tongia. Reserves: Ged Robinson, Adrian Barone, Tom Parsons, Tony Lamborn, Ellery Wilson, Jason Shoemark, Matt Berquist.