Waikato's healthy mix of youth and experience must target the NPC semi-finals

Shaun Stevenson made his Waikato debut last year and was named in the Chiefs squad for 2016.
Hannah Peters

Shaun Stevenson made his Waikato debut last year and was named in the Chiefs squad for 2016.

Waikato's National Provincial Championship season begins against Tasman in Blenheim on Sunday.

And anything less than a place in the semi-finals would be considered a poor return, for a squad glittering with young talent that's mixed with a wealth of experience.

A top-four finish is something Waikato haven't achieved since 2011, when they finished top of the standings.

Veteran halfback Isaac Boss made his first Waikato start in 11 years against Wanganui this month.
Jeremy Ward/www.photosport.nz

Veteran halfback Isaac Boss made his first Waikato start in 11 years against Wanganui this month.

The Mooloo men then lost the final 12-3 to Canterbury, in a painful repeat of the 2010 decider which Canterbury won 33-13.

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It's now been a decade since Waikato won the NPC, and while a championship is perhaps out of reach for now, a top-four finish is attainable after coming a disappointing sixth in 2015.

Taking the Ranfurly Shield off Hawke's Bay last October was a huge boost for Waikato after a few difficult seasons, which left them battling to avoid relegation from the premiership more times than Mooloo fans would care to remember.

But with the Log o' Wood in the trophy cabinet, and three comfortable pre-season defences over Thames Valley, King Country and Wanganui, Waikato's season should kick off with an added competitive edge.

Head coach Sean Botherway said he was proud of his players after their last defence, and their hit-out against Taranaki last weekend saw Waikato take a 26-man squad to Inglewood.

A 21-12 defeat matters little in the grand scheme of things, with a healthy mix of the NPC, development and junior squads all getting game time.

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Waikato have recruited blasts from the past to bolster their ranks, with halfback Isaac Boss, 36, and first-five eighth Sam Christie, 30, back in town following spells abroad.

And with their Super Rugby stars training with the squad, the competition for places is alive.

Stephen Donald was named captain and the 32-year-old's experience will add steel to the youthful backline.

After missing out on the All Blacks, Damian McKenzie is expected to pull the strings at first-five following an excellent season at fullback for the Chiefs.

The 21-year-old is committed to Waikato until 2018, and he could light up the NPC with his devastating running game in a role he prefers.

With Tawera Kerr-Barlow in the All Blacks, Harrison Levien and Pele Cowley will battle with Boss for the No 9 jersey.

Winger Shaun Stevenson, 19, is one to look out for after his first year with the Chiefs. He was also selected for New Zealand's Under-20s squad for the world rugby championship in England in June.

Centre Willis Halaholo adds extra quality after he finished the season starting for the Hurricanes as they won the Super Rugby title.

Anton Lienert-Brown is with the All Blacks, so new boys Tevita Taufui and Nathaniel Apa will fight for a place in the midfield after good seasons in club rugby.

Jordan Trainor, Sevu Reece and Iliesa Ratuva Tavuyara are also short of experience, but not of quality with the backline full of speed and flair.

Leading props will likely be Hurricanes and Chiefs front-rowers, Loni Uhila and Atu Moli, with Hame Faiva at hooker, who's trained with the Highlanders this year.

Lock James Tucker's form last year saw him make the Chiefs 2016 squad, and he'll compete with Brian Alainu'uese, Jacob Skeen and Leva Fifita.

Whetu Douglas, Mitch Jacobson, Adam Burn and Jordan Manihera will fight for spots in the back row.

AT A GLANCE: 

Backs: Tawera Kerr-Barlow (Hautapu), Harrison Levien (Hamilton Marist), Pele Cowley (Hamilton Old Boys), Isaac Boss (Southern United), Damian McKenzie (University), Stephen Donald (University), Sam Christie (Fraser Tech), Willis Halaholo, Tevita Taufui (Melville), Nathaniel Apa (Fraser Tech), Anton Lienert-Brown (University), Iliesa Ratuva Tavuyara (Hamilton Old Boys), Sevu Reece (Melville), Shaun Stevenson (Hamilton Old Boys), Jordan Trainor (Fraser Tech).

Forwards: Loni Uhila (Hamilton Marist), Latu Talakai (Fraser Tech), Hame Faiva (University), Steven Misa (Hamilton Marist), Atu Moli (Chiefs), Tau Koloamatangi (University), Sefo Kautai (Hamilton Marist), James Tucker (Hamilton Marist), Brian Alainu'uese (University), Jacob Skeen (University), Leva Fifita (Hamilton Old Boys), Whetu Douglas (University), Mitch Jacobson (Hautapu), Adam Burn (Hamilton Old Boys), Jordan Manihera (Hamilton Old Boys).

Predicted starting XV: Trainor, Stevenson, Halaholo, Taufui, Tavuyara, McKenzie, Boss; Douglas, Jacobson, Burn, Tucker, Skeen, Moli, Faiva, Uhila.

Predicted finish: Semi-finals

 - Stuff

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