Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Pruned premier field begin fight for Gallaher Shield

Grammar-Carlton won the Gallaher Shield in 2012.  Photo / Natalie Slade
Grammar-Carlton won the Gallaher Shield in 2012. Photo / Natalie Slade

Auckland premier club rugby action kicks off today with 15 teams - down from 16 - contending for the coveted Gallaher Shield.

The final is set down for August 3, but there is plenty of competitive footy before the business end of the season, with the round-robin competition for the Alan McEvoy Memorial Trophy. Each side will play 14 games before the playoffs, which include the top eight Gallaher Shield.

Teachers-Eastern, champions in 1999, have opted out of premier play in 2013. They are in the throes of a merger with Grammar-Carlton and are keen to build up their resources. So each premier club will have a bye.

The new name is Maungarua, but this is not a new club, as such. This is Te Papapa-Mt Wellington, which have been renamed after the two hills which take in the catchment area, Maungakiekie and Mt Wellington.

Setting the benchmark are Grammar-Carlton, who hold three of the four major Auckland premier club rugby trophies - the Gallaher, Alan McEvoy and the 2013 pre-season Waka Nathan Challenge Cup.

The latter was won last weekend, 23-11 at the expense of Waitemata in the final. Utility back and Auckland rep Dave Thomas, playing second five, sealed the win with a late try. Second year coach Richie Harris has a stack of experienced blended with some young talent, such as 2012 NZ Schools captain and loose forward So'otala Fa'aso'o.

Holders of the Sir Fred Allen Challenge Cup, the Ranfurly Shield equivalent of Auckland club rugby, are Papatoetoe, where Luke Mealamu, brother of Keven, has stepped up as head coach to replace Geoff Moon.

The south Aucklanders kick off with a cup defence, against Waitakere City.

Other contenders will be Suburbs, making solid progress under the astute coaching of Ramsey Tomokino; Marist, under new coach Paul Biddle, 2012 grand finalists looking to go one better, and with experienced locks such as Gene Waller and Filipo Levi looking to free up space for talented outsides such as Leroy Van Dam and Sam Vaka; Ponsonby, who will be stung after being toppled from their perch last season; and Pakuranga, again under the aegis of Auckland assistant coach Paul Feeney.

The east Aucklanders will hope to see game time out of fringe Blues such as Malakai Fekitoa and Joe Edwards.

University have a very young squad, and have recruited some prime schoolboy talent out of King's College and Sacred Heart College.

Waitemata welcome back an old favourite in Amasio Valence, who has played for Suburbs in the last two seasons.

College Rifles have recruited Orene Ai'i and Brad Mika to bolster their mostly home-grown squad.

Today's marquee match pits Suburbs against the champs Grammar-Carlton at Shadbolt Park. All matches will kick off at 2.45pm

- NZ Herald

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