Expect nothing short of total commitment from the Bay of Plenty Steamers this afternoon in their final hit-out before their opening ITM Cup game against Southland in Invercargill next Friday night.
The clash with Counties Manukau in Whakatane has full first-class status and is a last ditch opportunity for players to impress coaches Kevin Schuler and Rodney Gibb.
Certainly they will want to continue the momentum from the 35-0 win over Hawke's Bay last Thursday. "What you do look for early on is the attitude of the team and how quickly the team is picking up the concepts," said Steamers head coach Schuler. "From that point of view, [Hawke's Bay] was really satisfying. We were under the pump early on, and twice we held them up over the try-line. The theme this year is being relentless and never giving in. That has been a big part of our training and the mindset we are trying to bring. That was the most satisfying thing, plus some real physical play that at the end probably broke Hawke's Bay."
The battle for the No 10 jersey is an intriguing one, with Paul Morris and Dan Hollinshead having game time against Hawke's Bay. Hollinshead, who has just turned 19, will start today against Counties Manukau in another test for the promising pivot.
"Dan has probably had the advantage of having that Chiefs Development experience so has been playing those games at the level for a while," said Schuler. "It is really exciting that we have a group of boys that everyone knows from club rugby, who are stepping up to that transition of time pressure, physicality, and their own expectations."
Counties Manukau will be well prepared for today's game, with two early successful Ranfurly Shield defences and a win over North Harbour on Saturday. They welcome back Commonwealth Games silver medallist Sherwin Stowers and their Chiefs Super Rugby players.
Schuler says Counties have been real high flyers in the ITM Cup the last couple of years.
"They are a real physical side and probably possess more than Hawke's Bay did, with stronger individual players. I just wish they had brought the shield with them."
Te Puna's Te Aihe Toma will start at halfback, with Jono Kitto on the bench, and captain Culum Retallick will get his first game time, since missing the entire Super Rugby season after he ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee at Blues training in December.
• Bay of Plenty v Counties Manukau
• Rugby Park, Whakatane, today, 2.45pm