Bombay will have to overcome the loss of several key backs for the first 2-3 rounds as they contemplate their status as two-time defending champions of Counties Manukau premier club rugby, which kicks off tomorrow.
Once again Counties Manukau are off to a flyer with their competition, and Bombay coach Jeff Marr would like the idea of his side doing the same, but knows that with players out through injury, lost to the Cavaliers match versus the New Zealand Under 20s, and away with Samoa A, he will look to his experienced pack to hold the fort.
First up is an intriguing battle at Onewhero, on 'The Hill', always a challenging place to bank four or five points. Steelers loose forward Adam Cathcart is now in charge of the Onewhero premiers.
"They always have a strong team, but will be disappointed where they finished last season. This is always a close battle," said Marr, who will have assistance from former Manu Samoa captain Semo Sititi and former Fiji skipper Greg Smith. Marr's previous assistant Darryl Suasua is now coaching the Steelers.
The Bombay pack looks good, a solid scrum anchored by Sam Aiono and Kalolo Tuiloma, supported by locks Matiaha Martin and Johnny Kawau, and young loose forward Hamiora Clarke plus No 8 Ben Masoe. Marr is hopeful injured Blues five-eighths Piers Francis will see some action once he recovers, while there are two other fringe Super Rugby players from Bombay in Sam Vaka and Toni Pulu. Reece Joyce, who operated mainly at fullback last season, is dabbling in league, while halfback Liam Daniela, though away with the Cavaliers tomorrow, looms as a key man after a breakthrough 2015.
"We don't really see ourselves as defending champions. It's a bit like the Ranfurly Shield. You have to win it. We want to be in contention for three in a row, but it hasn't been a focus for us as we have a lot of young players. But we don't start from scratch as we have 90 percent back," said Marr.
Though there may be some blowouts looming in the first round Challenge Cup, at least six clubs will feel they are realistic contenders this season.
One of them will be Counties Power Cup holders Ardmore-Marist, who travel to Drury. There is a potentially tight clash at Karaka, who host Pukekohe, while Waiuku host Papakura, Patumahoe seek to continue their fine finish to 2015 against Manurewa, and Weymouth travel to Te Kauwhata.
A pleasing feature of the competition is the sight of a number of former Steelers reps who are taking up the coaching reins, for example Mark Birtwistle is back at his old Pukekohe club helping out, while Tony Barchard has moved from Manukau to Manurewa. Gavin Giles is at the helm of Papakura.
All games kick off at 2.45pm. The Challenge Cup runs until May 21, after which the top eight plays off for the McNamara Cup, as in 2015.
*Waikato is the only other union to kick off their premier club rugby tomorrow.
On March 19, Auckland starts their pre-season Waka Nathan Challenge Cup, while other unions to start their 2016 seasons then are Northland, King Country, Manawatu, Tasman and Central Otago.