Injuries a worry but Stags should make semis
OPINION: How will the Stags go this season?
It depends, is the answer.
It depends on whether they can stay healthy, for a start.
The Stags have an experienced core of players and some young attacking talent coming through, but the level below that is drawn entirely from premier club rugby, which is a shallow pool to be fishing in.
The Stags' starting 15 have a quality look about them and there are options off the bench but, if injury strikes, any depth will be severely tested.
It also depends on how this team comes together.
Last year was a difficult one for the Stags, with some players no longer on the scene.
There has been another high turnover over the summer but, despite that, there is also a settled look about the squad.
The forward pack has a backbone of players who have played more than - in some cases a lot more than - 50 games for their province.
Jamie Mackintosh, Hale T-Pole and Talemaitoga Tuapati have some international experience.
There are no question marks over the Southland pack's ability to win enough ball, but they will need to be very smart at the breakdown to ensure that possession is fast enough to be of use.
Slow ball has been an issue for the Stags for too long, regardless of the talent Southland has had among its fetchers.
The Southland backline is arguably at least a year behind the ideal unit to play behind that pack and it will fall, initially, on the young shoulders of Tayler Adams and Scott Eade to spark it.
Southland has rarely been known for a fluent backline with attacking three-quarters who run over, through or around the defence but, if Cardiff Vaega can carry his club form into the NPC, and Marty McKenzie and Robbie Robinson can create and finish opportunities, there's no shortage of threats among the double digits.
Stags coach David Henderson has talked about an expansive game plan that allows players to enjoy themselves.
As always, that will be tempered by the weather conditions, as Henderson is nothing if not pragmatic.
The sight of a Southland team throwing the ball around inside its own half is rare, although not unheard of.
Southland can't afford just to win, however, they also have to pick up bonus points along the way.
Southland have been treated relatively well by the draw.
Tasman are an awkward prospect first up, while Northland have been buoyed by the return of Rene Ranger and will be tough to beat in Whangarei.
Of the Stags' cross-over games, Taranaki, Bay of Plenty and Counties Manukau are beatable premiership opponents.
There is no Auckland, Canterbury or Wellington in the programme.
Wins at home (Tasman, Taranaki, Waikato, Harbour and Hawke's Bay) will be important. A victory over Otago in Dunedin would be well received.
A place in the semifinals is the minimum requirement, a championship title win is the peak, but there will be several teams trying to push through to the premiership, and only one, narrow doorway.
Otago and Hawke's Bay loom as semifinal prospects, along with Southland and Tasman.
Home-ground advantage in the playoffs will likely prove the difference, so there's much to play for in every game.
- © Fairfax NZ News