The pandemic lockdown might have provided a window of opportunity for some of the Hawke's Bay Magpies as they regather to launch a Ranfurly Shield defence against occasional Battle of the Bays bugbear, the Bay of Plenty Steamers.
Among them are fullback/first five-eighths Caleb Makene, 25, and rookie loosehead prop Lolani Faleiva, 22, both former Napier Boys' High School 1st XV players waiting for their first Magpies matches of the season.
A veteran of 22 matches in two seasons for Hawke's Bay, Makene last played in his Highlanders Super Rugby debut in April and has had five months off while recovering from knee surgery. Faleiva, who was off for the first few weeks of the season with a hamstring injury, is waiting to break into the team 11 weeks after his last match, for Taradale in winning the Hawke's Bay Premier club final in July.
But it won't be easy, for when the Magpies regrouped on Wednesday morning at the Hawke's Bay union headquarters at Park Island, Napier, 35 of the 38-strong squad were on deck, raring to go in their first get-together in more than three weeks.
Speaking through a mask, team manager Mike Smith said of the three players not present, two were on the injured list and one had reported unwell and been advised to stay at home in keeping with the team protocols.
Makene had started to believe the season would be all but over by the time he recovered.
"Potentially I'll be having a lot more football than I thought I was going to get," said Makene, who now sits on the verge of a comeback with more than half the Bunnings Warehouse NPC to go.
He had not expected to be available until after the September 19 Battle of the Bays at McLean Park, a Round 7 match.
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With players stretched across the region, coaching and training staff expected both individual and set exercise training to be maintained, the situations of Makene and Faleiva highlighting the variation.
Makene flats in a small squad bubble with fellow members Ollie Sapsford and Ereatara Enari. The flat was equipped with "one (lifting) bar and two 20kg plates", while Faleiva was at "home" in Onekawa, trying not to get too used to what was on the plate, and using the roads and hills as his training ground.
The level of competition amongst a near fully-fit squad was obvious when they reunited for a near hour-and-a-half session on the field. "The boys are pretty stoked," Makene said.
The spectre of the pandemic is close – the carpark nearby is host to more vaccinations, and Smith says a couple of players had mentioned maybe "taking advantage of the lunch break" to get theirs done.
Among five Premiership teams with a win each from two games, with only Waikato and Tasman unbeaten, the Magpies last played on August 14 in a successful Shield defence against Otago.
The New Zealand rugby union is yet to decide on the future of locked-down teams Auckland, North Harbour and Counties Manukau, but the Magpies are expected to follow the original schedule of the September 19 match in Napier, with away games against Wellington (September 26) and Auckland (October 3) before what was to have been the last-round match, against defending national champions the Tasman Mako, currently scheduled as a shield defence at McLean Park, on October 9.
Four postponed rounds are expected to be "factored back in" to extend the season into November.