Hawke's Bay Magpies head coach Josh Syms says his team's relatively tight 38-20 Ranfurly Shield defence over South Canterbury was about what was expected given the local side's limited preparation.
The Magpies' preseason games against North Otago (85-0) and East Coast (93-5) last year were mismatches, but the 2021 Heartland champions showed real quality at McLean Park on Wednesday.
"We've had this group together for about a week, so we're scratchy and that was a really good South Canterbury side," Syms said.
The tough encounter will be far more useful for his squad than a blowout victory, especially for the six debutants and the squad's fringe players, underlining the standards required for provincial rugby.
"There's a bit of work to do there in the outside backs I'd suggest, we probably weren't as tidy there as we needed to be," Syms said.
With so many frontline backs unavailable, club rugby standouts Majella Tufuga (Taradale) and Paoraian Manuel-Harman (Napier Old Boys Marist) both played their first Magpies game.
Anzelo Tuitavuki (Tonga), Neria Foma'i, Danny Toala and Lolagi Visinia (Samoa) are representing their countries at the Pacific Nations Cup in Fiji over the next few weeks.
The Manu Samoa trio and halfback Ereatara Enari will return to Hawke's Bay duty on July 18, as will Māori All Blacks Tyrone Thompson, Isaia Walker-Leawere and Brad Weber.
Tuitavuki and his Ikale Tahi teammates Joe 'Apikotoa and Solomone Funaki will be back a week later, in time to prepare with the rest of the Magpies squad for the next Ranfurly Shield challenge from Poverty Bay on July 30.
Syms said there are still 24 contracted Magpies away on international duty or yet to return to action after professional seasons in Super Rugby Pacific and abroad.
He said that uncertainty, along with the likelihood his Bunnings NPC squad's depth will be tested by injuries and Covid-19 absences, means there will be opportunities for club rugby players and wider squad members to step up.
A keen observer of the premier grade this season, Syms said he was struck by the diversity of styles on display from the 11 clubs over the round-robin Nash Cup.
The coach said it will make for some interesting matchups in this weekend's Maddison Trophy quarterfinals.
"That MAC-Havelock one is a real contrast in styles, Hastings will be dangerous coming from sixth, even the top two teams [Napier Tech and Old Boys Marist] wouldn't count their chickens just quite yet," Syms said.
He said being the only undefeated side through the Nash Cup, Napier Tech are favourites to win the Maddison Trophy.
Magpies utility back signing Chase Tiatia has joined Napier Tech, but is yet to make his debut.
Tiatia was an integral part of the Chiefs' run to the semifinals of this year's Super Rugby Pacific, where his ability to attack from deep and offload in the tackle caused opponents plenty of headaches.
"I am very excited to join the Magpies for this coming NPC season, the Magpies have always played an exciting brand of rugby and I am looking forward to being a part of that this year," Tiatia said.
Syms said Chase would bring experience and game breaking ability to an already potent Magpies backline.
Tiatia added, ''I can't wait to run out in the black and white of Hawke's Bay, I know they have a fantastic fan base, and I will be doing my utmost to try and help them retain the shield and win the NPC."
Tiatia will be available for the preseason Ranfurly Shield defence against Poverty Bay on July 30.
Tiatia has recently signed with the Western Force, who have former Magpies coach Mark Ozich on their coaching staff.