It is early days in the club rugby season, but the first pieces of silverware will be won in Auckland today.
University host Ponsonby at Colin Maiden Park in the final of the Waka Nathan Challenge Cup for pre-season competition. The foes, two of Auckland's oldest clubs, had some classic Gallaher Shield final clashes in 1983, '84 and '86.
Ponies were on top of the ledger then, 2-1, and could justifiably claim the favourites tag this afternoon thanks to a couple of tight victories over 2013 Gallaher Shield champion Pakuranga (32-23), and Grammar TEC (32-17), along with a 93-0 shellacking of Maungarua.
University has, equally, played some fine footy in dispatching Papatoetoe (44-10), College Rifles (21-7) and Waitemata (31-5), but is missing several key players through injury or being unavailable.
Varsity's new coach Dean Bickerton will be without forwards Sean Brookman (knee), Nepia Fox-Matamua, Sean Polwart and Kurt Eklund, but should have more reinforcements next week for the start of the competition proper. John Drake Memorial Scholarship winner and 2013 NZ Schools opensider Mitch Karpik will likely suit up off the bench, though fullback Bram Egli is out and halfback Brenton Helleur, back from North Harbour, is unavailable for this game. Also back from North Harbour is wing Ben Paltridge. Varsity will be hoping their depth comes through, as they will lose their New Zealand Universities players in a few weeks too.
Ponsonby will be stung at dipping out in the 2013 Gallaher Shield quarter-finals, and though acutely aware that March form counts for little in July, will be wanting to show some early muscle under new coach, former Ponsonby, All Blacks and Samoa halfback Ofisa Tonu'u.
Ponies have some exciting new recruits, including 2013 NZ Schools loose forwards Akira Ioane (on national sevens duty this weekend) and Blake Gibson, along with utility back William Talaitaina-Mu and wing Pryor Collier out of last year's Auckland Grammar School First XV.
Kickoff is at 2.45pm, as is the second-tier Pollard Cup final between Manukau Rovers and Papatoetoe at Williams Park.
Grammar-Carlton, as it was then known, won the 2013 Waka Nathan final over Waitemata.
• The inaugural Pasifika Aotearoa Cup also kicks off today, featuring four women's sides: Counties Manukau Cook Islands, Northern Region Maori, Auckland Samoa and Auckland Tonga. The competition, involving an open and under-19 selection for each team, will be played in 20-minute quarters over five weeks.
• The second round of Counties Manukau premier play, with an elongated 12 teams in the top division, is highlighted by the Pat Walsh Memorial Day, Manurewa hosting Waiuku. The former All Black utility back played for both clubs. Defending champions Ardmore-Marist host Karaka. Kickoffs are all 2.45pm.