Bay of Plenty will hit the ground running tomorrow in Whakatane, with new coaches Kevin Schuler and John Walters resisting the urge to throw a scratch line-up out on to Rugby Park against match-hardened Hawke's Bay.
Instead they've plumped for a team brimming with Super Rugby talent, with five of the starting line-up coming straight back from the elongated international competition as Schuler and Walters capitalise on their three-game pre-season window before the opening ITM Cup clash with Taranaki on August 25.
Luke Braid (Blues), Kenny Lynn, Chris Noakes, Culum Retallick (Highlanders) and ACT Brumbies lock Leon Power get an early season hitout against Hawke's Bay, with Phil Burleigh (Highlanders) rested and the Steamers' Chiefs players Lelia Masaga, Tanerau Latimer and Josh Hohneck not expected to return until for another couple of weeks.
Paroa midfielder Maru Henry has forced his way on to the bench from the development side, with Schuler saying they wouldn't get too technical against the Magpies, who arrive having lost their pre-season opener last week to Waikato 29-21.
"We'll keep it pretty simple given it's our first hitout, seeing how the team gels together with a pretty simplistic game plan," Schuler said last night. "The aim's to give as many of the squad who are available a run bearing in mind the Chiefs boys aren't around until the week of [ITM Cup] kickoff and were managing Burls [Burleigh] and Billy [Ben Smith] back to fitness."
Nick McCashin will also start off the bench after kicking Te Puke Sports to back-to-back Baywide titles on Saturday in the slop at Tauranga Domain, with Schuler recognising the first-five's big club rugby workload this season.
Rolling subs would be employed to give everyone a decent lash, with Schuler pointing to next week's games against the Bay of Plenty Wasps in Rotorua (Tuesday) and North Harbour in Katikati (Friday) as the time to bed down specific strategy.
"The key thing is we're ready to go when the season starts, not this week. Not getting the Chiefs guys until the actual week of kickoff means they'll have no pre-season with us, but it's not as if guys like Lats and Flash have to upskill - they'll slot right back in and be ready to go. They're a known quantity and them turning up will be a great lift to the squad."
How new signing Kenny Lynn combines with Lance MacDonald and loosie-turned-wing Jack Wilson could go a long way to determining Bay of Plenty's back three this season, with Wilson never getting a chance to shine in the club final.
"I know Jack's keen for a run - the poor guy looked like a newborn calf in that mud on Saturday, caked in mud, with big white eyes, wondering which paddock he'd just landed in," Schuler said with a laugh.
"Some of the boys haven't had much rugby recently so they'll all be better for picking up a few early-season bumps and bruises."
Both teams will go into the game mindful of eight new laws being implemented in this year's ITM Cup, part of a global trial of new IRB laws.
Changes include a five-second time limit on playing the ball once it is at the back of a ruck, a time limit on when conversions must be completed after a try is scored, the positioning of a quick throw-in and expanding free-kick options for teams benefiting from a knock-on or throw forward into touch. Teams awarded a penalty or free kick at a lineout may choose another lineout without first having to kick for touch.
Schuler said most top-level players were looking to keep the game moving anyway and he didn't anticipate too many teething problems.
"The players are pretty alert to quick throw-ins and the back three will be switched on to that, and most of the changes are structured towards getting teams to keep the tempo up.
"The five-second rule at the ruck might take a bit more to bed in but it's a matter of making sure you're organised and ready for the next phase and Bay of Plenty hasn't traditionally been a team that's spent a lot of time with the ball at the ruck base."
Bay of Plenty Steamers: Kenny Lynn, Jack Wilson, Mafi Kefu, Simon Rolleston, Lance MacDonald, Chris Noakes, Jamie Nutbrown (capt), Carl Axtens, Luke Braid, Warren Smith, Culum Retallick, Leon Power, Mike Kainga, Dan Perrin, Greg Pleasants Tate. Reserves: Jesse Acton, John Pareanga, Pingi Taalapitaga, Keepa Mewett, Josh Hall, Lewis Hancock, Nick McCashin, Maru Henry.
Hawke's Bay Magpies (from): Gillies Kaka, Penikolo Latu, Bronson Neera, Tua Saseve, Nick McLennan, Ihaia West, Isaac Paewai, Mike Coman (capt), Adam Bradey, Trent Boswell-Wakefield, Kieran Coll, Maselino Paulino, Pete Borlase, Ash Dixon, Brendon Edmonds, Jesse MacDonald, Adrian Brone, Jodi Allen, Johan Schoonbee, Tom Parsons, Tivaini Fomai, Peniasi Tokakece, Michael Ruru, Luke Makris, Star Timu, Dan Waenga, Matt Gordon, Brynn Uriarau.
Kickoff: 2pm, Rugby Park, Whakatane.