If the Hawke's Bay Magpies' ITM Cup Championship rugby form is as good as their comedy acts expect a second consecutive final this season.
Hurricanes lock Mark Abbott led an entertaining comedy session at the Magpies season launch attended by more than 200 sponsors, officials and volunteers at Napier's McLean Park yesterday. It also involved Hawke's Bay-born rookie prop Jason Long, veteran utility back Matt Berquist and Canada's 2011 World Cup prop Jason Marshall.
While some of the jokes are best unrepeated, Berquist relished the age concern-type quips thrown his way from Abbott and quickly referred them to the oldest player in the squad, former captain Jason Shoemark, 33, who has returned to the Bay to collect his pension according to Berquist.
Abbott's form as an MC was admirable and it soon became apparent he won't be the shy and quiet first season customer he was last year.
New Magpies captain Brendon O'Connor told the function he flats with Abbott and his cooking skills when it comes to pasta and mince were also pretty sharp.
Blues flanker O'Connor is also a second season Magpie and he recalled how impressed he was with the support for the team last season.
"There is a real core group of supporters here and I know it's a cliche but we couldn't do what we do without your support," O'Connor said.
Magpies head coach Craig Philpott proved he had been well taught by former manager Neil Weber when revealing some of the statistics involved with this season's 32-strong squad. It includes two All Blacks, fullback Israel Dagg and prop Ben Franks, who were both absent yesterday because of their international commitments, Canadian World Cup rep Marshall and 16 Super Rugby players.
Former Hurricanes halfback Chris Eaton has the most first class appearances for the Magpies with 76 and the combined tally of these within the squad is 518. Eight of the squad have yet to play in the ITM Cup.
They include the squad's youngest player, 19-year-old New Zealand under-20 lock Geoff Cridge, his Hastings Rugby and Sports clubmate Long, the Napier Old Boys Marist pair of halfback Ellery Wilson and first five-eighth Tyrone Elkington MacDonald, Marshall, the Taradale pair of flanker Tom Stanley and midfield back Billy Ropiha and exciting Havelock North winger-fullback Ryan Tongia who has played rugby league for the Papua New Guinea Kumuls.
Another two in the squad, Highlanders loosie Gareth Evans and Chiefs centre Robbie Fruean will also make their debuts for the Magpies this season. Havelock North's Evans is a younger brother of former All Black and Magpies lock Bryn Evans.
Tamatea is the only one of the 10 Hawke's Bay premier clubs without a player in the side this season.
Philpott told the gathering it was ironic the Magpies will begin their campaign on August 17 against the side which beat them in last year's final, Tasman, and the bloke who refereed the final, Bay of Plenty's Glen Jackson will again be in charge. Tasman will be one of three Premiership teams the Magpies face in their first three outings, Taranaki at home on August 22, and Counties-Manukau, an away Ranfurly Shield challenge on August 30, are the others.
Philpott reminded fans how any one of the ITM Cup teams can beat any one of the others and recalled how Wellington were unbeaten until the Magpies beat the Lions 35-14 last year. He also recalled how Southland made the Championship semifinals with four wins and six losses.
Commenting on the strategies formulated at the Magpies recent pre-season camp in Rotorua, Philpott, stressed the side will adopt a "one game at a time approach this season ... always with the compass facing north."
"We've agreed to have trust in our systems and belief in each other."
Philpott paid tribute to the contributions made by Weber and former captain Mike Coman who left the "Magpies family" last year as well as centurion Karl Lowe, former All Black Zac Guildford and last season's top tryscorer Telusa Veainu.
New manager Derek "Danger" Martin was introduced to the function. He mentioned the high excitement levels surrounding the team.
"Particularly with two iconic Magpies, Shoemark and Berquist, returning and the introduction of Fruean."
Shoemark and Berquist will be on the subs bench and Fruean will be in the starting XV when the Magpies have their final pre-season rehearsal against Waikato at McLean Park today. This clash will be the curtainraiser to the Maddison Trophy final between Havelock North and Taradale.