Few, least of all the coach, know what to expect from an untried Thames Valley Swamp Foxes squad for tomorrow's 'home' Ranfurly Shield challenge against Waikato in Paeroa.
Coach Hayden Roe, along with assistant Frank Bunce, has named a largely unknown 23, with just three starters returning from the 2015 group - second five Moss Doran, openside flanker Shayne Johnson and captain and hooker Hayden Wisnewski. A handful off the bench have also appeared, while No 8 Brett Ranga, the 2016 player of origin, skippered the side in 2014. Ranga, with 25, and Wisnewski (16) are the only players into double figure tallies in first-class appearances for the union.
"A few guys have retired, there's a few injuries and a few guys have moved on elsewhere," says Roe. He was sweating on the fitness of his two Fijian loan players - flanker Rupeni Vakacegu and prop Sailosi Baleisolomini - from Waikato club United Matamata Sports, who played yesterday. Both players had racked up nine tries apiece in club rugby this season.
"We're pretty multi-cultural this year. We've got prop Remy Chies from Dax in France, who has come over to help out Tairua in our club competition. We'll have a look at him for the Heartland Championship," says Roe.
"Johnny Hale on the wing is South African-born and played for the Sydney Stars in the 2015 NRC. We're grateful to the Waikato union for loaning us the two Fijian boys. They are both good ball carriers."
Last season's captain Chance Bunce, son of Frank, is injured, as is 2015 national Heartland wing Tyrone Keith, removing some much-needed attacking firepower from Thames Valley.
Lock Josh Elgoran from Te Aroha COBRAS, is said to be cut from the Keith Robinson mould. Reserve hooker Nick Judd is the cousin of Steelers and former Swamp Foxes halfback Richard Judd.
Roe is especially pleased at the recall of Ranga.
"Brett's a top man. A lot of our structures and systems are similar to 2014, when he led the team. He's playing some really good footy for Mt Maunganui."
But with potentially 15 debutants tomorrow, Roe is not well versed in the background of each and every one of his charges.
"I know probably as much about the Waikato team as I know about my team!" he quips.
That Waikato side looks a more than useful early-season selection, with Atu Moli thirsting for game time at tighthead prop after a shoulder injury curtailed his Chiefs work. Teenage wing Sevu Reece, another Hamilton BHS product, was in the 2015 NZ Schools, while No 8 Whetu Douglas and hooker Hame Faiva were in the 2015 NZ Universities. Isaac Boss, fresh from ending his stint with Irish province Leinster, will raise the average age of the squad by several years. The 36-year-old played 52 games for Waikato, but his third was back in 1999, when Thames Valley last challenged Waikato for the Shield, a 37-8 win for the holders in Hamilton. That was a creditable effort by the challengers, as Waikato fielded five All Blacks, a Tongan international (David Briggs), the Fiji captain (Greg Smith) and Boss himself, who went on to play for Ireland.
There could be as many as 11 Waikato debutants tomorrow.
Roe says he was as excited as anyone when Waikato lifted the Shield off Hawke's Bay last October, as that paved the way for a possible crack at the coveted Log o' Wood. Ordinarily the two unions would not face each other were it not for a Shield clash.
"It's fantastic that Waikato are offering us the opportunity to have a crack in Paeroa. I fully understand how hard it is for (Waikato coach) Sean Botherway to put together his side in June as well, with Super Rugby and NZ Under 20 guys away," Roe says.
Thames Valley will clearly be up against it, having not played under the new breakdown trial laws, while Waikato have been playing with them in their club rugby. But there is a buzz around the union, with RDO Bill Cooksley chaperoning the Shield around the union over the last few days.
"We want the boys to set their personal goals and do their family and union proud, and we want to showcase heartland rugby" says Roe.
Thames Valley would love nothing more than to use this clash as a springboard to a strong Heartland Championship campaign after missing the top eight in 2015.
Tomorrow will be just the second time a Shield match has been played in Thames Valley, and it will be the 15th time in all, since 1951, that they have challenged.
The last 'home' challenge was a celebrated occasion in 1989, when an Auckland side, close to its glorious peak, and with 11 All Blacks in the starting XV, won 58-7 on Paeroa Domain. Things got heated in the scrums, where the Silvester brothers faced down Olo Brown, Sean Fitzpatrick and Steve McDowall. Auckland ran in eight tries, including doubles to Zinzan Brooke, Alan Whetton and Va'aiga Tuigamala, while first five John Carter chimed in with 26 points. However, the biggest cheer of the day went to Thames Valley wing Kevin Handley, who finished a spectacular team try. Funnily enough, the Thames Valley halfback that day, Mike Crawford, returns as manager of the Mooloos in 2016.
Roe himself cannot quite recall, but thinks he might have been floating around with an ice-cream that day. What is certain is that the attendance of 7000 remains the Thames Valley provincial record crowd. They won't pull that many tomorrow, and the Swamp Foxes will not engineer one of the biggest upsets of all time, but Roe is hoping for at least a whole-hearted effort and a couple of tries.
Thames Valley last challenged for the Shield in 2014, going down 68-0 to Counties Manukau in Pukekohe.
Kickoff at the Paeroa Domain is at 2.35pm, with the match telecast live on SKY.
*In tomorrow's other provincial rep fixture in Masterton, Wairarapa-Bush host Hawke's Bay at 1pm. In yesterday's clash for the PJ Sayers Cup in Ruatoria, East Coast defeated Poverty Bay 26-8.
Thames Valley: Jesse Dodunski, Carlin Hana, Jone Koroinsagana, Moss Doran, Johnny Hale, Josh O'Flaherty, Ben Bonnar, Brett Ranga, Shayne Johnson, Rupeni Vakacegu, Kieran Whyte, Matt Rolston, Sailosi Baleisolomini, Hayden Wisnewski (c), Johnny Mason
Reserves: Nic Judd, Remy Chies, Glen McIntyre, Josh Elgoran, Connor McVerry, Matty Fisher, Cody Muir, Reade Tobin
Waikato: Josh Gascoigne, Iliesa Ratuva Tavuyara, Glen Robertson, Tevita Taufui, Sevu Reece, Jason Robertson, Harrison Levien, Whetu Douglas, Adam Burn (c), Jake Ale, Sam Kilgour, Jacob Skeen, Atu Moli, Hame Faiva, Latu Talakai
Reserves: Samisoni Taukei'aho, Tau Koloamatangi, Duke Nginingini, Sam Caird, Murray Iti, Isaac Boss, Matty Lansdown, Tyler Campbell