Shorn of most of their top players to rep sides, overseas postings, retirement and injury, defending Gallaher Shield champions Grammar TEC will look to their pack to lead the way as Auckland premier club rugby kicks off tomorrow.
"It'll be a challenge. We've got a good group of 6-7 guys from last year who know the systems and on whom we can fall back on. But we have to redesign how we play with the personnel we have," says head coach Joe Snee.
He can call on 2015 Grammar TEC captain and lineout kingpin Scott Scrafton, released by the Blues for the clash with Manukau.
Scrafton will wear the No 6 jersey. The burden of leadership will also fall on the likes of Auckland props Tom McHugh and Isi Tu'ungafasi, while halfback and goalkicker Jono Hickey will assume the captaincy. Michigan Lam returns to the club to fill the void left by first five Simon Hickey, who won't be back from France until June.
Hookers Andrew Makalio (Tasman) and Liam Polwart (Bay of Plenty) have departed, while lock/No 6 Taleni Seu is thriving at the Chiefs. Loose forwards Stew McVinnie (OE) and Michael Faleafa (Canada) are also absent, but for all those losses, the backline has been even more decimated. The reliable Brendan Ward has left, while centre Dave Thomas has retired, and wings Bryce Heem (England), Otulea Katoa (Scotland) and Ben Lam (injured) mean they will not be fielding the biggest threequarter line in the competition, as they did in the latter stages of 2015.
Snee is wary of the Manukau threat, and the Rovers may field speedy outsides such as Melani Nanai and Stacey Ili tomorrow.
"Manukau was the only team that tripped us up last year. It's a tough pool. You can only drop one or two or you'll struggle to get through," Snee says.
The first round will be played under the same format as in 2015, making for some cut-throat action, as five competitive sides from each of the two pools vie for the eight available second round Alan McEvoy Memorial Shield berths. College Rifles and Suburbs missed the cut last season, and will have designs on bouncing straight back. There will be no byes as the Maungarua experiment is over, which sees both clubs reverting to Te Papapa-Onehunga and Mt Wellington.
Grammar's TEC's pool features Ponsonby, Pakuranga, and Rifles, plus Manukau.
Pakuranga, who won the Waka Nathan Challenge Cup last weekend narrowly over Waitemata, have the services of 2015 NZ Schools first five Wiseguy Faiane and loose forward Dalton Papali'i, though he will soon be lost to the NZ Under 20s. Pakuranga will defend the Sir Fred Allen Memorial Challenge Cup against Otahuhu today.
University, who contested the 2015 final with Grammar TEC, have also lost a stack of talent, namely No 10 Brenton Helleur to retirement and loose forward Matt Matich to Northland. Varsity no longer possess the same enviable depth in the loose trio, but do have Maori All Blacks front-rower Marcel Renata and Hawke's Bay first five Tyrone Elkington-MacDonald in the ranks.
There has been movement in the coaching ranks. Former Manu Samoa No 10 Ngapaku Ngapaku has taken the reins from Luke Mealamu at Papatoetoe, former NZU midfielder Peter Leuloso'o replaces Ofisa Tonu'u at Ponsonby, and Duncan McGrory steps in for Dean Bickerton at University. Jason Wordsworth moves up from the Manukau Under 21s to take the premiers in place of Tony Barchard and Frank Bunce.
All premier games kick off at 2.45pm tomorrow.