Auckland's 1A First XV competition kicks off tomorrow and is sure to again spark plenty of interest.
The 1B champions from last season, Onehunga, are back up in the top flight after beating Tangaroa 17-6 in last weekend's promotion-relegation fixture, but 2015 champions St Kentigern will again have a target on their backs as they seek a fifth title in six years.
Contenders such as King's and MAGS will have to bring their A game to trouble St Kentigern, who have again recruited aggressively and shown some striking pre-season form, thrashing both Moascar Cup holders St Andrew's of Christchurch and 2015 national Top 4 finalists Scots of Wellington in the annual Presbyterian quadrangular tournament.
"It was nice to string together a couple of nice performances at the back end of pre-season," says seventh year St Kentigern First XV coach Tai Lavea, though mindful to guard against complacency heading into tomorrow's opener at Aorere. He knows his opponents and the school well.
"I met my partner there and coached there (from 2005-09), so that place is quite special to me. Their coach (Graeme Phillips) and I are good friends. They got better through the 1A season last year. They won't roll out the red carpet for us, so we'll have to earn our stripes."
Aorere will be one of several schools who will have their sights on a coveted semifinal berth. They will join a long list, which includes Auckland Grammar, Sacred Heart, Kelston BHS, St Peter's and De La Salle, while Dilworth made a very creditable first foray into 1A with a seventh placing in 2015.
Otahuhu stayed up with an 18-8 victory on Eden Park last weekend over Liston in the other promotion-relegation, inspired by a sizzling solo try to openside flanker and man of the match Spencer Fruean.
While the gap between the haves and haves nots appeared to widen last season, Lavea does not foresee too many blowouts in 2016, with so many semifinal contenders.
"Such is the nature of the 1A. There are some quality teams, but also some quality programmes and coaches, and the majority of coaches have been in the grade for a while."
A fast start is vital to semifinal aspirations. Kelston, in particular, suffered from a slow 2015 start, while MAGS were unlucky to miss the top four on points' differential.
The odds of a fifth consecutive St Kentigern-Auckland Grammar final must be long, given Auckland Grammar, judged on pre-season form and changing personnel, may not have quite the quality of their 2012-15 teams. But you write off a school with 66 1A titles at your peril. On Wednesday night, Auckland Grammar launched a book, by Rob Hunt, on the history of First XV rugby at the school from 1871-2015. Grant Fox spoke, while two rugby knights, Graham Henry and John Graham, were also in attendance.
Lavea has chosen midfielder/wing Tanielu Telea, into his fourth year in the First XV, as his skipper, and that pair, along with senior players such as hooker Sam Toloke, flanker Kayleb Milne, goalkicking halfback Carlos Price and fullback Etene Nanai, will have to manage how the side deals with the expectation.
"There is a high expectation every year, but we believe if we do the work and prepare well, that gives us the confidence to perform well on Saturdays," Lavea says.
Of course, he will have pencilled in the King's clash on July 2, a televised clash which will have extra spice after twin brother Tasesa led King's to victory in 2015 against their fellow private school foes.
The 1A season, along with 1B, 1C and the schoolgirls' competition - which starts on Monday afternoon - was launched at a function on Wednesday at Eden Park, where there were key messages from the ARU and the NZ Rugby Players' Association on areas such as supplements, nutrition, and player agents.
MAGS will host Otahuhu tomorrow, Auckland Grammar welcome Onehunga, De La Salle travel to 'The Cage' at St Peter's and Sacred Heart have an interesting game at Dilworth.
All games will kick off at 2.30pm, except the televised King's-Kelston clash, which is set for 2.40pm.
*North Harbour's 1A competition also gets under way tomorrow and, for the first time since 2010, Rosmini enter as defending champions.
Captained by No 7 Sam Hasler, Rosmini will travel to Takapuna Grammar
"The main focus of the first round is to introduce some promising young players into our systems and give them experience at First XV level," says coach Mark Free.
Whangarei BHS, who have joined the North Harbour 1A seeking more meaningful competition, have already shown their hand with a 33-13 away win over Takapuna Grammar last Saturday in a rescheduled round three clash. Whangarei host Orewa tomorrow. Westlake defend the Woodhouse Shield at home to Rangitoto, and Massey host promoted Birkenhead, back in 1A after a year's hiatus. Of note are two midweek rounds, which will test the resources of some sides.
All games kick off at midday.