It's Tai Mitchell Shield defence time for Te Puke's young rugby players.
With two big wins under their belt in the pre-tournament games held over the past two weekends, Te Puke start their defence of the shield at this year's tournament, held at Rotorua Boys' High School from today, full of confidence.
The Tai Mitchell tournament started in 1938 and is one of the most important events in the Bay of Plenty Junior Rugby calendar. Teams are divided into two respective pools which have been determined by pre-season qualifying tournaments held in Galatea and Rotorua respectively.
There will be two days of pool play before the playoffs get under way, semifinals on Saturday and finals on Sunday.
Te Puke - made up of Te Puke Intermediate School and Pāpāmoa College students - won the shield in Tauranga last year after a 26-12 victory over Tauranga West.
Assistant coach Aaron Sutherland says a handful of players are backing up from last year's winning team.
For players up to Year 8, he says Year 7 players are normally included in squads to give some continuity.
"This year we have about half a dozen Year 7 [students]. I suppose they are fringe players this year but will step into the leadership roles in their Year 8 year."
Those who are backing up this year include Wyndham Patuawa, who went on to be selected for the Bay of Plenty Roller Mills team, Rico Kelly, Kerry O'Reilly and Aidan Spratley.
Two of the stars from last year's title-winning team, Fijians Nacani Batidravu and Waisake Salabiau, are no longer eligible. However, Maloni Bole and Malakai Cama, who are at Te Puke Intermediate School on rugby scholarships, are in the side this year.
"The Fijian boys are good quality players, but the local boys are standing out as much or more this year," Sutherland says.
"Everybody's contributing right across the 22 — that's a strength we've got, probably more so than any individuals. And they are good kids as well as good players."
He says while the current squad is aware of it, he doesn't think being defending champions will hamstring the players.
Aidan Kuka, coach of last year's second-placed squad Tauranga West, said his team was going into the tournament with a relatively young squad who have had a good build-up ahead of today.
"We've got a lot of younger players this year, so we're looking to possibly build for next year," Kuka said.
He says there are two experienced members on his team who the younger players will be guiding the team during the competition - Captain Kash farmer leading his team at number 12, and Paora Elder at number 4.
"Those two will be our go-to boys during the tournament."
Kuka believes Te Puke will be in the finals and his side will work hard to get there.
"We'll be working hard to put ourselves there," he said.
Tauranga West leave for Rotorua this morning and is looking forward to the tournament he sees as one with "a lot of mana", something primary school pupils set their sights towards and a stepping stone for future representative players.
Bay of Plenty Primary Schools president Wayne Fell said the support from the Wasps Rugby Football Club was instrumental to the successful delivering of this week's tournament.
Wasps Rugby Football Club president Craig McCord said they were proud to play their part in the development of the Bay of Plenty's emerging talent.
"We are proud to be associated with Tai Mitchell Tournament and the contribution it makes in the development of our emerging sporting talent throughout the Bay of Plenty," McCord said.
■ The original Tai Mitchell Shield was presented by Mr Henry Taiporutu Mitchell in 1938, for competition among the primary school teams representing Bay of Plenty rugby sub-unions. The tournament doubles as a trial for the Bay of Plenty Roller Mills team, which will represent the province at the northern regional tournament.
Tai Mitchell Tournament Draw 2018:
Round 3 - Today:
Te Puke vs Rotorua Gold, 12pm
Tauranga West vs Galatea, 12.30pm
Tauranga East vs Tauranga North, 1.15pm
Opotiki vs Rotorua Maroon, 1.45pm
Whakatane vs Rangitaiki, 2.30pm
Round 4 - Tomorrow:
Whakatane vs Rotorua Maroon, 9am
Opotiki vs Tauranga North, 9am
Tauranga East vs Galatea, 10.15am
Tauranga West vs Rotorua Gold, 10.15am
Te Puke vs Rangitaiki, 11.30am
Round 5 - Tomorrow:
Opotiki vs Galatea, 12.45pm
Tauranga East vs Rotorua Gold, 12.45pm
Tauranga West vs Rangitaiki, 2pm
Te Puke vs Rotorua Maroon, 2pm
Whakatane vs Tauranga North, 2pm