Bombay look well placed for an assault on a fourth straight McNamara Cup as the Counties Manukau premier club season kicks off tomorrow.
Bombay have, amazingly in this transient day and age, lost just three of their 2016 squad, with No 8 and 2014-16 captain Ben Masoe retiring and Steelers prop Sam Aiono transferring to Manurewa. But head coach Jeff Marr can call on a compelling mix of seasoned campaigners and young talent, some of it straight out of First XV rugby.
"Potentially we've got the strongest squad we've ever put together over the last four years. We've got the squad to seriously challenge for the semifinals again," says Marr.
He will again be assisted by former Manu Samoa captain and Steelers assistant Semo Sititi, along with back attack coach Paul Wheeler and scrum coach Alan McLean.
Bombay will build their title defence around a big, quality pack, many of whom have played between 50 and 90 premier games for the club, and marshalled in midfield by Steelers centre Sam Vaka.
Props Kalolo Tuiloma and Corey Te Whata will both run out for their 50th matches tomorrow at home to Onewhero, but there is serious back-up with the likes of 2016 NZ Schools prop Damon Abraham, back from his Sacred Heart schooling, Wesley prop Sue Asomua, and his No 8 brother Fui Asomua, plus former St Peter's prop Daniel Perez, out of the 2016 Counties Manukau Under 19s.
Throw in former St Kentigern lock Cole Watson, who could partner the Steelers' Matiaha Martin in the second row, plus other forwards Johnny Kawau, hooker Sean Muir and loosies Josh Allan and Hamiora Clarke, and there is formidable depth to the Bombay pack.
Halfback Liam Daniela and former Manu Samoa No 10 Ki Anufe will direct traffic, and feed men like Vaka, wing Sepu Taufa and newcomer Tulolo Tulolo, who played three games at wing/fullback for Canterbury in 2015.
Marr says there has been talk of winning four on the bounce.
"Last year we didn't, but we cranked it up in the second half of the season. This time it would be a fantastic achievement," he says, mindful of the great Manurewa side of 1990-95, which annexed six McNamaras.
With Weymouth and Drury dropping out of premier one play, there is a more streamlined, competitive look to the 10-team landscape. The usual suspects will be pushing hard, such as 2016 finalists Ardmore-Marist, perennial contenders Karaka and Pukekohe, and Patumahoe, who have a new coach in Jeff Maka, younger brother of Isitolo.
"Papakura have got a really good coaching team and a good squad. That's positive for Counties. Manurewa have put a really strong squad together. But it's really hard to know how everyone is going to go," Marr says.
Bombay have had a useful pre-season, with wins over Auckland clubs Ponsonby and Pakuranga, but Marr is expecting a physical clash with Onewhero tomorrow. Elsewhere, Ardmore-Marist host Manurewa, Pukekohe welcome Karaka, Patumahoe versus Papakura and Waiuku travel to Te Kauwhata.
All games kick off at 2.45pm. The McNamara Cup now has two full, home and away rounds, meaning 18 games which run until July 8, followed by semifinals.
*East Coast is the only other union to kick off their official premier club rugby season tomorrow.
On March 18, Auckland starts their pre-season Waka Nathan Challenge Cup, while other unions to start their 2017 seasons then are Northland, Bay of Plenty, Wanganui, Manawatu, Wellington and the Central Otago sub-union.