The countdown to next month's 2018 Ross Shield primary school rugby tournament in Central Hawke's Bay is officially under way.
CHB will host the 116-year-old tournament for the first time in five years when Napier, Hastings East, Hastings West, Wairoa, Dannevirke and CHB battle it out for the prestigious shield at Central Park in Waipukurau from October 2-6.
The official capping ceremony for CHB's 22-player Ross Shield squad was held at CHB Municipal Theatre in Waipawa on Saturday night, where the players were told they could rely on the support of the entire district during the under-56kg tournament.
Around 120 people including family members, friends, sponsors and supporters attended the capping ceremony to watch the players enter the theatre behind a Scottish bagpipe player.
During the ceremony, the players were individually introduced and presented with their tournament caps by their individual sponsors, before they ended the night by performing the team haka for the supportive crowd.
Featuring players from 10 CHB primary schools, the team will be captained by Cameron Brans from Argyll East School, who is one of the few returning players from last year's CHB side which finished as the top country team in third spot on six points, with three wins from five games.
Despite the team's inexperience, second-year CHB coach and former Magpie Rob Evans promised his side would do the community proud.
"We are going to go to the tournament and play our heart out for the [CHB] community.
"We've changed our game a little bit; we are hoping to play a different game of footy.
We've got some pretty talented individuals so we are trying to play a free game, where we can let these guys express their talents," he said.
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Guest Travis Taylor, a current Central prems player and former Manawatu Turbo who played in the 2007 CHB Ross Shield team, promised the youngsters their first taste of representative rugby would be an "awesome" week, and they would create lasting friendships.
Some of his teammates from more than a decade ago were still his good mates, and he urged the youngsters to "hook into it" early rather than wait for the latter stages of the tournament to start playing hard.
CHB mayor Alex Walker said Ross Shield had a big name and reputation in the region, which also came with big expectations for the players
Speaking on behalf of CHB's roughly 14,000 residents, Walker said they could rely on the support of the entire district.
"It's not just you ... There are thousands of people who get this, and are supporting you too. And we're all incredibly proud."
Another special guest, current Magpie Tom Parsons, said he represented CHB as a youngster from Takapau but never played for CHB in Ross Shield, instead representing Hastings East.
He played the year the tournament was hosted in CHB and it was a special moment for him to walk down Waipukurau's main street in the official tournament parade.
The tournament, first contested in 1902 and older than the Ranfurly Shield, has been a launching pad for Hawke's Bay-bred All Blacks such as Israel Dagg and Josh Kronfeld, and Parsons told the CHB youngsters that with dedication and hard work they could go on to higher honours
With the tournament expected to cost more than $30,000 to stage, CHB tournament organising committee representative John Kilmister thanked the numerous CHB businesses and companies for sponsoring the team and the individual players.
He said the committee had been meeting since December and the pressure was on to deliver a good event, but also a windfall to fund CHB teams to travel away for the following four years before the district hosted the tournament again.
The teams will arrive on CHB on Monday, October 1, for the official tournament weigh-in.
The tournament parade down Ruataniwha St in Waipukurau begins at 10am on Tuesday, October 2, before round 1 fixtures start at 1pm.
Games will be played at Central Park at 1pm, 2pm and 3pm every day until Friday, with Saturday's final round starting at the earlier time of 11am.