Q: It is exciting to see Rene Ranger in Steve Hansen's All Black 23. Do you see any up-and-coming Northland players coming on, or any of promise from the other smaller unions around NZ?
Dave Keen, Kerikeri
A: Dave, I still keep a very keen interest in Northland rugby. I am in the fortunate position of commentating on grassroots rugby so can follow many a promising player from his start in club rugby to their debuts in provincial rugby. This tiered system has made All Black rugby what it is today and highlights the importance of all our 26 unions.
One player to watch from Northland is your very own Jack Ram from the Kerikeri club. Derek Carpenter from Mid-Northern is another who could make the step up if given a chance. Young halfback Mac Sykes from Kamo has already proved what he is capable of, playing for Mid-Canterbury.
The Chiefs' Asaeli Tikoirotuma and Michael Fitzgerald are current players who have proved the system still works, moving from Wanganui to Manawatu respectively and now starring in Super rugby.
There are plenty more Rene Rangers out there, they just need to take their chance.
Q: Tell me how good Counties Manukau will be after so many of their players earned Super 15 contracts this year?
A: It's going to be tough for the 2012 NPC Championship winners, Jeremy. There will be many challenges for the union, Tana Umaga and his coaching staff, which they will meet head on, making it exciting for all involved. Challenge number one will be finding out what sort of shape, both physical and mentally, the Super 15 players are in once their commitment to their teams has finished. The state they are in will impact greatly on pre-season and the forward planning that sets the foundation ahead of a busy 10 weeks of rugby.
Tana's next big task will be integrating his Super players back into playing the Counties Manukau way. For the last six months the players have been programmed and will believe and trust in playing a style that suits their Super franchise. Now, and it's not as easy as flicking a switch, they must buy into everything that is happening in Pukekohe and leave the rest behind.
I have had personal experience of this: playing like my All Black coaches wanted, which actually didn't suit what my North Harbour coaches needed.
Lesson learned - adjust expectations and trust the team.
Counties will also have a target on their heads this year - teams benchmarking their performance against them which means the pressure to perform will be on them for each and every game. None of these challenges are insurmountable and the culture Tana has developed may even turn them into a positive, which is how all Counties Manukau supporters should feel about the season ahead.
This is a great team coached by a great man and and I see no reason to suggest, providing everyone is working harder than they did last year, they won't have another good season, which kicks off against Wellington on August 15.