It's been a while since a Wellington forward pack shouldered such a heavy mantle of expectation heading into the national provincial championship.
More familiar is the question mark over first five-eighth where Tim Bateman has no shortage of skills, but little experience in running a prolonged campaign.
But the galaxy of All Black stars is missing these days with Cory Jane, Hosea Gear, Conrad Smith, Julian Savea and Ma'a Nonu all unlikely to play more than a fleeting role and Piri Weepu no longer in town.
That's not to say Wellington's backs are poor.
In Shaun Treeby they have a consistent line-breaker at second five-eighth, out wide Alapati Leiua possesses an array of skills and Matt Proctor a ton of pace.
However, it's up front where the Lions will fancy they can match, and possibly better, their premiership rivals.
"If you look at our forward pack when you take the All Blacks out of other teams we've still [comparatively] got a pretty experienced pack,” Wellington coach Chris Boyd said this week.
“We'll play to wherever we think we can get domination over the other teams and I think against a number of them our pack stacks up pretty well.
“But we've had a look at both options to play a game with a bit of width, but also to play one that's fairly direct.”
It's a logical call because seven of the eight players named to start in the Lions pack against Manawatu in the opening round tonight have Super Rugby experience.
The front row is the same used by the Hurricanes with Reggie Goodes, Dane Coles and Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, while former All Black Ross Filipo and captain Jeremy Thrush form a vastly experienced locking duo.
No 8 Ardie Savea is the exception and Boyd has hooker Motu Matu'u and lock Lua Lokotui to call on from the reserves and experienced openside Serge Lilo on the comeback trail.
It's enough to suggest the Lions should be aiming way above last year's dismal results and the top-four should be an expectation, not a bonus.
Of their competition, Waikato and Taranaki look particularly strong. The latter have grunt in the middle with Jason Eaton, James Broadhurst, Craig Clarke, Scott Waldrom and Jarrad Hoeata
With coach Colin Cooper pulling the strings, first five-eighth Beauden Barrett guiding the ship, and Andre Taylor finishing out wide, they will be hard to beat.
Waikato appeals too with props Ben May and Toby Smith and loose forwards Jack Lam, Marty Holah and Alex Bradley part of a strong pack, though there is no standout at first five-eighth.
Canterbury do not look as imposing this time though they should be in the mix. Auckland are young, while Bay of Plenty's and Hawke's Bay's strengths looks to lie in the backs.
For all that Boyd reckons it is an unpredictable competition made even more so by the crossover matches with the Championship sides.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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