The country's top international riders are there in force but nobody's counting out the Mount brigade as the surfing nationals hit the water at Dunedin today.
Mount Maunganui hotshots Tim O'Connor, Alex Dive and Nick White are all strong prospects to win New Zealand's longest running and most prestigious surfing event, set to run over the next four days at St Clair beach.
For O'Connor, 21, and Dive, 18, the contest offers a chance of adding a New Zealand open title to previous national junior crowns, with O'Connor winning the under-16 division in 2004 and Dive emulating the feat in 2008.
Heading into this second contest of the six-round SOL Surf Series, the pair are also looking to build momentum from November's opener at Gisborne, where O'Connor carved his way to third and Dive finished one spot back.
O'Connor would also love an open national victory to go with his Auahi Kore Maori nationals title, bagged at Raglan in October.
"Since winning the under-16 at the nationals in '04 and coming second [in under-18] in '06, I haven't had much luck in open. I've had two thirds in events on the national circuit but it gets a little annoying making it all the way to the final and finishing third," he said.
"It's been a dream since I was young to win the nationals, lifting that trophy over your head would be an amazing feeling. Hopefully this will be my year."
Prime contenders to thwart the Mounties' charge are Richard Christie (Mahia), reigning men's open champ Billy Stairmand (Raglan), and Jay Quinn (Gisborne), 65th, 67th and 96th respectively in the ASP world rankings.
In his first season focused solely on the open division, Dive has looked to a surprising corner for inspiration, tapping the expertise of Tauranga resident and former All Black Bull Allen.
"We've been doing some gym training and he helps me mentally as well, he's an all-round mentor," Dive said yesterday. "It's about getting my confidence back up, I haven't had good results since the middle of last year.
"I won the GromSearch comp in Dunedin '08 and I'm here to win again, but if any of the Mount boys can bring the title home it'd be pretty cool." With a World Surfing Games and two years on the World Qualifying Series under his belt, 24-year-old White has an explosive aerial repertoire that took him to fourth in last year's Super 16 national tour finale and sixth for the series.
"For preparation I've just been surfing heaps ... I'd like to finish top-three but I'm trying to stay pretty relaxed about contests, just go out there and surf."
Notably absent from the Mount contingent are '09 open men's champ Matt Hewitt and open women's titleholder Laura Rishworth.
Following a sensational return after knee surgery to win the Moves Pro Junior in Victoria last week, Hewitt is in Sydney attending the world pro junior contest, though not competing. Rishworth has opted to save her travel funds for contests in Europe.
Back at the nationals after six years competing overseas, former Gisbornite Airini Mason is a likely frontrunner for the open women's crown - having won it in '04 as a 13-year-old and remaining the youngest open nationals champion.
Among other Bay surfers competing are Jordan Griffin (Mount) and Mac Christie (Tauranga) in the under-16 field. The second round of the Hyundai national longboard tour will run in tandem with the national titles.