Bay of Plenty Steamers head coach Clayton McMillan has named his 2019 Mitre 10 Cup squad and it is packed with an exciting mixture of youth and experience.
After finishing fifth and missing the semifinals in the Championship last year, starting the season with the right set of players is crucial.
With a core group of senior players returning, many with Super Rugby experience, the next logical move was to invest in an injection of youth.
In his fifth year at the helm, McMillan said newcomers to the team such as Leroy Carter and Lalomilo Lalomilo, who helped win the Bay's first major trophy in 42 years, the 2018 Jock Hobbs Under-19 tournament, "put their hands up and have made it virtually impossible to look past them this season".
Tauranga Boys' College old boy Carter, a combative, powerful halfback, has long been on a trajectory towards success. He was named player of the tournament at the 2017 Condor Sevens and this year played for the New Zealand Under-20s at the Junior World Cup in Argentina.
I'm looking forward to just getting on the field hopefully and getting a taste of professional rugby.
He said making the team for the first time was a dream come true.
"I'm pretty stoked, it's been a dream since I was a young fella. I grew up in Australia but moved to Tauranga at the start of Year 9. The first Bay jersey I wore was an under-14 one so ever since then really.
"I'm looking forward to just getting on the field hopefully and getting a taste of professional rugby."
Carter said the biggest learning curve at the Junior World Cup was realising what it was like to play in a side with high expectations which he believed would help him make the most of his latest opportunity.
"How to deal with pressure, I've never been under that much pressure before, that was the biggest learning. That was a real key learning which will hopefully make me a better player coming into this Mitre 10 Cup season."
McMillan said naming the squad each year was always exciting and he was looking forward to seeing what this year's side could achieve.
"We feel like we've got a reasonably good balance this year and we've got a little bit of x-factor and speed as a point of difference, particularly out wide."
The Selection Process
With players moving on at the end of the previous season, others returning and already on contracts and others fighting to renew contracts, a lot goes in to selecting a Mitre 10 Cup squad.
McMillan said the first thing he needed to see in potential squad members was that they would be able to handle the step up to Mitre 10 Cup rugby.
"We try to assess as best we can people's ability to be able to compete at this level. Sometimes what we see and what other people see isn't always aligned but we have a profile of what sort of game we want to play and the team we want to play that game.
"In this environment, there isn't a lot of room for passengers. We need people who are good learners, self-motivated and are highly motivated to succeed."
He said when it came to Mitre 10 Cup contracts, there was a competitive market.
"You have to lock in early the people you are 100 per cent convinced will add value the following season or seasons, otherwise they're at risk of being plucked by other provincial unions or overseas.
"When there's space in the roster, we work really hard over a 12 month period to identify who the contenders are. We regularly assess them through club rugby, high performance training and testing.
"The reality is there is a big jump between club level and Mitre 10 Cup level. If people are consistent in their performances and they hang around, their opportunities will come."
2019 Bay of Plenty squad:
Alex Ainley, Hugh Blake, Luke Campbell, Sam Cane, Aaron Carroll, Leroy Carter, Pryor Collier, Kurt Eklund, Chris Eves, Cole Forbes, Fa'asiu Fuatai, Mathew Skipwith-Garland, Ross Geldenhuys, Nathan Harris, Dan Hollinshead, Joe Johnston, Richard Judd, Mitchell Karpik, Lalomilo Lalomilo, Tevita Mafileo, Hoani Matenga, Tom McHugh, Ajay Mua, Emoni Narawa, Abraham Papali'i, Liam Polwart, Joe Ravouvou, Jason Robertson, Aidan Ross, Jeff Thwaites, Chase Tiatia, Kaleb Trask, Stan van den Hoven, Nathan Vella, Baden Wardlaw, Joe Webber, Archie White.