As a Hawke's Bay Magpies rugby team locking combination Michael Allardice and Mark Abbott were seldom bettered.

The "Twin Towers", as they were nicknamed by this scribe shortly after their arrival in the Bay in 2013, pushed each other on and off the field. They were just as competitive when trying to out-cook each other as flatmates as they were during matches and at training sessions.

Last year the Twin Towers became One Tower as a knee injury ruled Chief Allardice out of the Magpies Mitre 10 Cup campaign. In his absence Hurricane Abbott still maintained his high standards and was close to fellow Hurricanes lock Geoff Cridge in the battle for the Magpies forward of the year and MVP awards.

With Abbott plying his trade for the Coca-Cola Red Sparks in Japan it will be interesting to see if Allardice, 25, can be just as dominant as Abbott was without him during the Magpies Championship season which begins with today's match against the Southland Stags at Napier's McLean Park.

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"The knee is back to 100 per cent and it's awesome to be back with the Magpies. There's a good mix of youth and experience within the squad with 22 of us capped for the team and another 10 or so new to the squad. While the new guys bring a fresh perspective experience is what you need to win matches," Allardice said.

A Palmerston North Boys' High School product who has played 36 matches for the Magpies, Allardice took a while to get back into the Chiefs' Super season.

"There was another tear with the knee which was a bit disappointing but I came back half through and got to play a few games including the one against the British and Irish Lions. In terms of wins and losses it was a successful season and I've signed for two more years with the Chiefs," Allardice explained.

With Abbott gone Allardice was the logical choice for the lineout-calling job with the Magpies.

"I love the challenge ... it's like a game of chess," Allardice said.

Because the Stags had only one pre-season game in Japan Allardice pointed out the Magpies haven't had any footage of today's opponents to study this week.

"Pre-season games don't mean a lot either. It's important we focus on the things we can control and the results will come. Traditionally Southland are a tough physical team and we expect that will be the case again this weekend."

With Abbott gone Allardice has some new Magpies flatmates in the Bay this season in fellow Chiefs Brad Weber and Sam McNicol and Highlander Richard Buckman.

"There will be some good cooking challenges although Bucky prefers eating out more. We're going to have to educate him as it can get a bit expensive if you eat out too much," he added.

The Magpies team for the match is unchanged from the one announced yesterday.
However Stags head coach Hoani Macdonald was forced to make a late change when halfback Liam Howley withdrew with an ankle injury collected at training on Thursday. He has been replaced by 19-year-old Southland Boys' High School product Jay Renton.

Rumours around Napier yesterday suggested former All Black Jimmy Cowan might replace Howley but Stags manager Jason Te Huia hushed those.

"We took Jimmy to Japan but he won't be coming to Napier. Jay started for us in Japan and and played 55 minutes. He deserves this opportunity," Te Huia said.

Renton is well known to Magpies assistant coach Mark Ozich who coached him for two years when he was at Southland Boys' High School. The Stags boast a couple of useful loosies in Highlanders No 8 Elliot Dixon and Crusaders flanker Tim Boys and their tussle with respective opponents Gareth Evans and Tony Lamborn could prove critical in the outcome of the match.

The absence of Maori All Black and Hurricanes prop Ben May, who is attending his father's unveiling, is a huge blow to the Magpies. However, starting props Mason Kean and Jason Long with four and 20 first-class appearances respectively for the Magpies are no longer rookies at this level.

Both are keen for more starting XV appearances this season than they've had in the past and this is an ideal opportunity for them to prove they deserve them. Fellow prop Mark Braidwood will be eager for game time off the pine after missing last season and he should provide valuable impact while it will be interesting to see what world champion Baby Blacks prop Pouri Rakete-Stones contributes should head coach Craig Philpott slip the collar off the 20-year-old.