Rugby: 11 players to make Mitre 10 Cup debut for Counties Manukau

By Campbell Burnes

Piers Francis is back in the 10 jersey for Counties Manukau. Photo / Getty
Piers Francis is back in the 10 jersey for Counties Manukau. Photo / Getty

No less than 11 players are poised to make their Steelers' debuts in Thursday night's Mitre 10 Cup opener and crossover clash with North Harbour in Albany.

There might have been less rookies, but All Blacks Sevens reps Augustine Pulu and Sione Molia only arrived back in camp earlier today, so will likely feature in the round two home clash against Bay of Plenty on August 28.

New Steelers coach Darryl Suasua has still named a useful squad on paper, despite a season-ending neck injury to loosehead prop Sam Aiono, meaning he is now down three top front-rowers. Former St Kentigern College First XV bookend Sean Paranihi joined the squad today on loan from Canterbury. Watch for debutant Kalolo Tuiloma in the No 3 jersey, fresh from a fine club season with champions Bombay, and one who has taken his chances in pre-season.

Other starting XV rookies are fullback Joe Reynolds, centre Joe Ikenasio, loose forwards So'otala Fa'aso'o and Fotu Lokotui.

The Piers Francis-Richard Judd halves combination, so solid in 2015, is reunited, while Sherwin Stowers makes a welcome return to Steelers' colours on the left wing. Sam Vaka of the Chiefs slots in on the right wing. Crusaders Jordan Taufua and lock Jimmy Tupou, the skipper, will lead the way in the pack. The prodigiously talented loose forward Viliami Taulani, fresh out of Manurewa High, and NZ Under 20s halfback Jonathan Taumateine, will be used off the pine.

Wing Sione Fifita, who has been with the Crusaders, is due back next week from an ankle injury.

After three pre-season games, including a promising 40 minutes against the All Blacks in Friday night's Game of Three Halves, Suasua feels his men are making good progress towards mastering the trial breakdown laws.

"The Northland game was really important in terms of the breakdown, as that was played under the new laws. We created opportunities, but didn't consistently take them. The funny thing about it was that we took all of them against the All Blacks," says Suasua.

Lokotui and Tuiloma were two to impress in the Game of Three Halves.

"We're as good as we can be with the new laws. We now have to factor in how the different referees are going to referee this," says Suasua.

Former England coach Stuart Lancaster has been helping at Steelers' trainings over the past week. He is said to be on the lookout for a fulltime gig, perhaps even in Super Rugby.

"He's been really good, giving bits of feedback and another set of eyes for detail. It's not just about coaching. He has talked about management and leadership structures," says Suasua.

Lancaster will have noticed a slight difference in media interest between his old England team and Counties Manukau. The Herald was the only media at today's session, though that will surely ramp up once the Olympics are behind us.

Kickoff is at 7.35pm on Thursday night from QBE Stadium. North Harbour will name their side tomorrow.

Counties Manukau: Joe Reynolds, Sam Vaka, Joseph Ikenasio, Cardiff Vaega, Sherwin Stowers, Piers Francis, Richard Judd, So'otala Fa'aso'o, Fotu Lokotui, Jordan Taufua, Jimmy Tupou (c), Viliame Rarasea, Kalolo Tuiloma, Gafatasi Sua, Sean Bagshaw;
Reserves: Suliasi Taufalele, Jarred Adams, Sione Faletau, Matiaha Martin, Viliami Taulani, Jonathan Taumateine, Kali Hala, Luteru Laulala

- NZ Herald

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