Unwanted All Blacks halfback Piri Weepu will spearhead Auckland's start to the national championship against North Harbour on Sunday, but it's a couple of new faces in the blue and whites that will command the attention of people in higher places.
Promising lock Patrick Tuipulotu and dynamic winger Tenina Saulileoge will make their provincial debuts, while Vince Aso and Saleaula Silipa are also poised to play their first games after being named on the bench.
Tuipulotu has already been signed by the Blues to help cover a second row department that has lost Ali Williams and Anthony Boric.
Blues coach Sir John Kirwan will take huge interest in this Battle Of The Bridge that will be an early trial.
Auckland coach Wayne Pivac is impressed by the potential of Tuipulotu
"He was in the New Zealand under-20s this year, he's an up-and-coming player who has been signed for the Blues and he's got a big future ahead of him. He's still obviously learning at this level but certainly we think he's a player that will kick on and have a big future," Pivac said.
After returning from a season in South Africa with Super Rugby franchise the Southern Kings, second five-eighths Hadleigh Parkes will captain the team.
Auckland's starting XV features 10 players who have played Super Rugby.
Runners-up to Canterbury last year, Pivac wants a good start against Harbour in a competition where Wellington have set the early benchmark by thrashing Counties Manukau last night.
"It's exciting," Pivac said. "It got underway last night with a cracker of a game by Wellington and they've set the pace early on so if we can have a good start to our campaign we'll be very happy."
With Gareth Anscombe undergoing surgery on both shoulders which has ruled him out of the ITM Cup forAuckland this year, New Zealand Under-20 playmaker Simon Hickey will start at first five-eighths, and Pivac believes the talented youngster will take it all in his stride.
"He's a confident young man but not overconfident. He believes in his ability and he has a lot of ability so that's a huge plus for us.
"I'm looking forward to seeing how Simon goes because he certainly played very well in his time during the pre-season game against Hawke's Bay so he's a player I think will stand out this year."
Despite North Harbour's poor showing in the ITM Cup last year, Pivac said he was expecting a lot more from them this season as the two rivals go head-to-head on Sunday.
"The hardest time to have a Battle of the Bridge is round one, the squad's are pretty much intact, everyone's level pegging on the scoreboard so there's no pressure there so I'm expecting them to be a lot better than last year."
Auckland: Lolagi Visinia, George Moala, Malakai Fekitoa, Hadleigh Parkes (c),Tenina Sauileoge, Simon Hickey, Piri Weepu, Peter Saili, Luke Braid, Joe Edwards, Patrick Tuipulotu, Liaki Moli, Angus Ta'avao, Tom McCartney, Sam Prattley. Reserves: Nathan Vella, Pauliasi Manu, Sean Brookman, Sean Polwart, Wayne Ngaluafe, Vince Aso, Saleaula Silipa.
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