New Waikato coach John Walters has been able to dangle the Ranfurly Shield as a carrot for his players, and now he's looking for an impressive response.
Walters, who will take the reigns of the Mooloos for the first time in their Shield defence against Horowhenua-Kapiti in Morrinsville tomorrow, has named 11 uncapped players in his match 22.
While there is a smattering of experience, it's the new blood who will gain the most attention of the coach in the first pre-season outing of the year.
Tighthead prop Fraser Armstrong, lock Brian Alainu'uese, blindside flanker Whetu Douglas, first five-eighth Wharenui Hawera, centre Dylan Collier and winger Semisi Masirewa have all been named to make their debut in the starting XV, while there are five uncapped players on the bench in hooker Hame Faiva, prop Johnny Tu'ungafasi, flanker Josaan Levien, halfback Jono Malo and centre Marnus Hanley.
''As best we can we're trying to reward really good club form, the boys have been training since January for this,'' Walters said. ''And the carrot that we put in front of them is an opportunity to play some Shield rugby, so it's pretty cool to be able to deliver on that.
''We're trying to develop a real competitive culture, so guys are scrapping hard week in, week out for those positions, for that jersey. Those guys that get a crack first obviously are in the box seat to hold onto it, so we're encouraging them to put their best foot forward because we will definitely be picking on form.''
Openside flanker Jono Armstrong will captain the side in his eighth appearance, while Chiefs squad members Romana Graham, Joe Webber and Brendon Leonard have been released for the game, along with Trent Renata, who has spent time with the Highlanders.
For Leonard, it is the 63-game veteran's last game in the red, yellow and black, with him heading to Italian club Zebre at the end of the Super Rugby season.
''We saw that as an opportunity to thank him for everything he's done for Waikato rugby,'' Walters said of having Leonard play on his home ground of Campbell Park.
''He's pretty highly thought of by all of us.''
Walters, who played 26 games on the wing for Waikato in the 1990s, was assistant coach of Bay of Plenty last year and was set to be Waikato's assistant this year, before being promoted with Chris Gibbes leaving.
He'll be looking for a slick start from his troops against a Horowhenua-Kapiti side who have finished last in the previous two seasons of the Heartland Championship.
''The Shield is bloody important to us so the first thing is that we want to hold onto that,'' Walters said.
''We've been working hard on getting guys to compete so we're looking for that real competitive edge to come out in the way that we perform. Obviously we've got a plan and we'd like to see evidence of the stuff that we've been working on all this time.''
Walters said it was pretty hard to find footage of tomorrow's opponents and acknowledged they will bring ''that fervour and that excitement'' that comes with a Shield challenge.
Their 22 includes 138 caps, which has an average age of 25 and includes a potential nine debutants.
Assuming Waikato win tomorrow, they then put the Shield on the line on July 30, against East Coast in Ruatoria.
Following that the Mooloos have two pre-season matches, against North Harbour at Hamilton's Beetham Park on August 2 and against Taranaki at Otorohanga's Island Reserve on August 10.
Their NPC campaign begins on August 17 with a scheduled Ranfurly Shield defence against Northland at Waikato Stadium.
Kickoff for tomorrow's match is at 2.30pm at Campbell Park in Morrinsville.
General admission tickets are $10 for adults and $2 for children, while grandstand seats are $20 and $12 respectively.
Meanwhile, Chiefs centre Tim Nanai-Williams is highly unlikely to take any further part in the Super Rugby season after straining a knee and re-injuring his groin against the Blues on Saturday.
The 24-year-old will be assessed further this week but yesterday revealed his disappointment via Twitter: ''Gutted to hear that I might be out for the year enverysad :(''
Waikato: Latu Talakai, Vance Elliott, Fraser Armstrong, Brian Alainu'uese, Romana Graham, Whetu Douglas, Jono Armstrong (c), Rory Grice, Brendon Leonard, Wharenui Hawera, Joe Webber, Joe Perawiti, Dylan Collier, Semisi Masirewa, Trent Renata. Res: Hame Faiva, Johnny Tu'ungafasi, Chris Middleton, Josaan Levien, Jono Malo, Marnus Hanley, Glen Robertson.
- Waikato Times
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