The stars came out to play - and mostly shone - on day one of the National Sevens in Rotorua.
Under a hot sun, before a small crowd, and with the interim All Blacks Sevens coaches Scott Waldrom and Tomasi Cama on hand along with coach-elect Clark Laidlaw, all fit New Zealand players, barring DJ Forbes and Tim Mikkelson, took the opportunity for some much-needed match practice in a highly competitive tournament.
To the fore were the likes of Sherwin Stowers of Counties Manukau, Jackson Ormond of Taranaki, Regan Ware of Bay of Plenty, Antonio Kirikiri of Manawatu and Rocky Khan of Auckland. All looked sharp.
Also under the spotlight were the new high tackle laws, under the TV microscope for the first time in New Zealand. The prognosis was decidedly mixed. Several yellow cards were dished out for high tackles, some of which were fair. But there were several controversial calls, though in fairness to the match officials, they had no recourse to the TMO.
The Canterbury men lost a man to the bin for what was deemed a dangerous tackle. It was anything but, and fortunately did not cost the southerners an upset 19-17 win over Bay of Plenty. The Canterbury women suffered the same fate in their 24-10 victory over Taranaki.
The North Harbour men secured a last gasp 21-14 win over Southland, but only after captain Jona Tuitoga was binned for an innocuous tackle, which would not have even warranted a penalty before January 3. There were other contentious decisions, including a sinbinning of a Wellington player who may have made contact with his fingertip on an Auckland opponent's chin. The general consensus was that, while the head is sacrosanct, some common sense needs to be applied.
On the results side, the Bay of Plenty women shone, topping Pool B, upsetting the more highly fancied Auckland 24-19, and with Black Ferns Sevens star Kelly Brazier in sparkling form. The Bay of Plenty men placed last, surprisingly, in Pool C, and thus miss tomorrow's Cup playoffs.
Counties Manukau look in fine shape in the both the men's and women's divisions, and will be the ones to beat on finals day. Portia Woodman and Hazel Tubic led the way for the women.
Waikato captain Zac Guildford led his side to the top of Pool A with some solid play, though he may have to show more of his pace and guile to sway the New Zealand selectors tomorrow.
Auckland finished strongly, with a tight 12-7 result over Wellington in the final match of the day. They had to make a comeback from a 12-0 deficit at halftime in their opening game against Otago, but rallied around the playmaking of Rocky Khan and Tutu Tairea and the pace of Lolagi Visinia, Joe Ravouvou and Jona Sawailau.
Auckland will face Taranaki in the Cup quarter-finals, Tasman (the sole South Island through) meet Wellington, while Counties Manukau face Hawke's Bay and Waikato play Northland.
Day One Results
Waikato 24 Southland 14, Hawke's Bay 31 North Harbour 7, Waikato 17 North Harbour 10, Hawke's Bay 24 Southland 21, Waikato 28 Hawke's Bay 5, North Harbour 21 Southland 14
Pool B: Northland 24 South Canterbury 7, Counties Manukau 26 Manawatu 7, Northland 33 Manawatu 5, Counties Manukau 55 South Canterbury 0, Counties Manukau 15 Northland 14, Manawatu 29 South Canterbury 12
Pool C: Canterbury 19 Bay of Plenty 17, Tasman 28 Taranaki 19, Taranaki 33 Canterbury 5, Bay of Plenty 28 Tasman 17, Taranaki 21 Bay of Plenty 17, Tasman 17 Canterbury 14
Pool D: Wellington 36 Horowhenua Kapiti 7, Auckland 19 Otago 12, Wellington 17 Otago 10, Auckland 40 Horowhenua Kapiti 12, Otago 29 Horowhenua Kapiti 12, Auckland 12 Wellington 7
Pool A: Manawatu 33 North Harbour 5, Waikato 12 Otago 12, Manawatu 20 Otago 10, Waikato 24 North Harbour 10, Manawatu 17 Waikato 12, Otago 38 North Harbour 12
Pool B: Wellington 41 Hawke's Bay 0, Bay of Plenty 24 Auckland 19, Auckland 31 Wellington 0, Bay of Plenty 42 Hawke's Bay 5, Auckland 43 Hawke's Bay 0, Bay of Plenty 33 Wellington 0
Pool C: Counties Manukau 40 Taranaki 5, Canterbury 25 Tasman 0, Counties Manukau 45 Tasman 0, Canterbury 24 Taranaki 10, Tasman 34 Taranaki 5, Counties Manukau 35 Canterbury 12