Suggest to Richard Buckman he is only an injury or two away from an All Blacks call-up and you get a predictable reply.

"I'm not too sure where I'm ranked but if my form is good enough for the Magpies during the Mitre 10 Cup I might get an end-of-year tour with the ABs."

The fact the Magpies utility back, who will start at second five-eighth for the Bay in tomorrow's Championship opener against the Southland Stags at Napier's McLean Park, was in an ABs wider training squad of 34 at a two-day camp in Christchurch earlier this month must be an indication of how close he is to an eagerly awaited and well deserved next step.

"It was an exciting time being around such high-quality players. I learned a fair bit off the coaches too. It's a different level compared with Super Rugby ... it's a cut-throat business up there," Buckman said.

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The fourth-year Highlander's versatility is just as big a weapon as his consistency and high physicality levels. He can play anywhere in the backline apart from halfback.

Buckman, 28, is just as excited about returning to the Magpies nest this season after missing the 2016 season because of his stint in Japan with the Panasonic Wild Knights.

"It's pretty good to be back. Hopefully I can repay the Bay ... I let the jersey down a little bit last year."

That statement is an indication of how committed Buckman, who played the first of his 64 first-class games for the Bay in 2008, is to the Magpies. While overseas options were on the table at the start of the year the Magpies got the nod and Buckman said as long as he remained in New Zealand he would only play for the Bay.

"The Magpie is tattooed on me," he said referring to the bird which sits above the Highlanders logo on his right arm.

"This season's squad is a bit different to the previous ones I've been in. I'm one of the older boys now and there is a lot of home-grown talent. Hopefully we can teach the younger boys a bit and we can feed off the enthusiasm the younger boys bring. There's a good mix of youth and enthusiasm there."

A product of Argyll East and Napier Boys' High schools, Buckman, doesn't mind what position he plays for the Bay this year.

"As long as I'm playing and I'm playing good footy."

Buckman isn't short on knowledge of the Stags, their Highlanders contingent in particular.

"The Stags are similar to us and they had a tough year last season finishing sixth in the championship. They are a pretty proud province who will be coming up here to have a good shot."

Former Magpie Ryan Tongia will start on the right wing for the Stags and Hawke's Bay's 2016 club rugby MVP Neria Fomai will start at centre.

"We'll have a big job shutting Ryan down. He scored a few tries on McLean Park during his time with us ... hopefully he doesn't score any more this weekend. Neria is a good player too," Buckman added.

Two of the Magpies starting XV players, Napier Pirate Rugby and Sports winger Hayden Hann and former Hurricanes midfield back Cardiff Vaega, will make their first-class debuts for the hosts. Six players are poised to make their first-class debuts for the Magpies from the subs bench.

They are new Waratahs lock Nick Palmer, Pirate prop and world champion Baby Black Pouri Rakete-Stones, Hastings Rugby and Sports hooker Jacob Devery, Napier Old Boys Marist halfback Zac Donaldson, Blues wider training squad midfield back Pasqualle Dunn and former Auckland and Blues outside back TJ Vaega.

Hurricanes prop Ben May is unavailable because he is attending his father's unveiling. Prop Jarvy Aoake and No 8 Fa'alemiga Selesele will play for the Hawke's Bay Saracens against Poverty Bay in Gisborne today and outside back Mitch Drew for the Hawke's Bay under-19s against Manawatu at Park Island.

Six Magpies, world champion Baby Blacks prop Tim Farrell, loosie Matt Gardner, midfield back Jonah Lowe, outside back Sam McNicol and halfbacks Brad Weber and Ellery Wilson, are all on the injured list.