The New Zealand Universities again have the opportunity to further their cause as both a quality representative side and a proven pathway for individuals to higher honours.
The NZU will this afternoon face the Wasps, a shadow Bay of Plenty Steamers selection, at Mt Mt Maunganui's Blake Park. This will be their sole hitout before their 'test match' against perennial opponents Kanto of Japan, which will be played on Saturday as the curtainraiser to the Chiefs-Sunwolves Super Rugby clash in Hamilton.
Last season the NZU defeated Poverty Bay 64-0 in their only fixture.
"In the time that Simon (Forrest) and I have had the squad, this is our fourth season, we've had four guys make Super Rugby, so that pathway opportunity is still there for these guys," says coach and former Otago and NZU lock Brendon Timmins.
That quartet is Matt Faddes (Highlanders), Hame Faiva (Blues), Whetu Douglas (Crusaders) and Dillon Hunt (Highlanders), while Massey's Hamish Northcott played for the Blues in 2013. Lincoln University's Ere Enari would have made this side but has been snapped by the New Zealand Under 20s.
Many of this squad have already played provincial rugby, but one never knows who is watching and a standout performance for NZU will do no harm for later in the season when the Mitre 10 Cup swings into action.
"You are effectively playing an international (against Kanto), so it's a step up. If you can do your job well here, you can put your hand up for your provincial coaches," Timmins says.
The side only assembled on Sunday in Tauranga but they have been swift to gel and, unsurprisingly for thinking students, get their heads around game plans and structures. There are 13 returning from the 2016 group, which also helps.
"We're really excited. The consistency of selection from last year plays a part in that too,' says Timmins.
The game against Wasps will not have full first-class status, though both teams have named 23. Steamers coach Clayton McMillan will be looking at fringe Mitre 10 Cup candidates, including prop Jordan Lay, a former NZU player, while Timmins is seeking clarity around what his side needs to do ahead of their big game against Kanto. Joe Webber was originally slated to play for Wasps but withdrew after injuring himself playing for the All Blacks Sevens in Singapore.
Kanto are due to play the Counties Manukau Cavaliers in Pukekohe on Wednesday, and Timmins is expecting them to be strong.
"They beat us in Japan two years ago, so we are very aware of that. They'll also have a strong contingent of support given that the Sunwolves are playing afterwards, so those guys will be pretty fizzed up," he says.
Happily, unlike the last few seasons where there have been wholesale late defections through injury and unavailability, there were only two changes from the initial NZU squad named a fortnight ago. Auckland loose forward Sinclair Dominikovich-Murray pulled a hamstring, while OBU lock Will Mangos had a dangerous bleed that landed him in hospital. In come Canterbury loosie Morgyn Cowan and Auckland lock Valentine Tauamiti.
Kickoff is at 2.45pm today.
NZ Universities squad to play Wasps: Sam Healy (Massey), Te Wehi Wright (Old Boys-University, Wellington, vc), Harrison Groundwater (Lincoln), Hamish Northcott (Massey), Caleb Makene (Lincoln), Sam Malcolm (Massey), Jack Stratton (Lincoln, c), Kirk Tufuga (Massey), Damien Scott (Otago), Sam Godwin (Canterbury), Jono Osbourne (Lincoln), Valentine Tauamiti (Auckland), Marcel Renata (Auckland), Tom Hardy (Otago), Finnbarr Kerr-Newell (OBU, Wellington)
Reserves: Nick Grogan (Massey), Angus Williams (Otago), Chris Gawler (Lincoln), Jack Sherratt (Otago), Morgyn Cowan (Canterbury), Marius Tonu'u (Auckland), Jason Robertson (Waikato), Nigel Gibb (Canterbury)