IT would be an injustice if Ricky Riccitelli doesn't feature among the finalists for the Hawke's Bay Magpies' forward of the year award.
The 2015 world champion Baby Black has made phenomenal progress as a loosehead prop during the Magpies' Mitre 10 Cup campaign. It's easy to forget this isn't his favourite position and Riccitelli, 21, will be back in his preferred role of hooker when the Magpies host the Bay of Plenty Steamers in their final outing of the season at Napier's McLean Park tomorrow night.
Captain Ash Dixon has been given a rest from the starting role and Riccitelli's Hurricanes teammate, lock Mark Abbott, will captain the hosts.
"The hooker's role is the one I enjoy. Making the All Blacks in that position is one of my dreams, the ultimate goal," Riccitelli said.
"I learnt a lot off Dane Coles down at the Canes. The professionalism of the Canes environment and being around some of the guys I looked up to motivated me to be a better player and put my hand up for more game time with the Canes and here with the Magpies."
Riccitelli described helping the Canes win their first Super Rugby title as "a pretty awesome experience."
"It's been good to bring back what I have learnt with the Canes to the Magpies camp. As I've progressed with the loosehead role I've learnt in every game particularly scrummaging wise and I've got to thank Brendon Edmonds, Ben May and our scrum coach Campbell Johnstone for what I've learnt. I'm happy to put my hand up for whatever role I'm needed for."
While he is contracted to the Canes until the end of the 2018 season Riccitelli has yet to sign a Mitre 10 Cup contract for next year.
"I thought I would wait until after the season. My main focus this week is on helping the Magpies beat Bay of Plenty. The Battle of the Bays is one of the biggest Mitre 10 Cup rivalries and because we've had the better of them during the last couple of seasons they will be motivated."
Riccitelli pointed out Magpies halfback Chris Eaton showed the team a video of the Magpies' win against the 1993 Lions this week.
"Tiaan Falcon's father Gordon and Brad Weber's father Neil were playing for the Magpies. There was a lot of feeling in the room as we watched it ... we saw how they played for each other and the jersey, their pride and passion. We have to get the respect of the fans in a similar manner, our fans have held us together and we have to show them we have that pride in the jersey."
The Steamers scrum has attracted kudos during recent weeks and Riccitelli said he expected a tough physical challenge.
"That's why we play the game. There's a few of us with a few points to prove ... it's crucial we have fire in the belly and ice in the head," he added.
In other changes to the Magpies starting XV used in last weekend's loss to Waikato, Tolu Fahamokioa returns from suspension to replace Riccitelli in the No 1 jersey, Mason Kean replaces the injured May at tighthead prop, Weber replaces Eaton in the No 9 jersey, Jonah Lowe replaces the injured Robbie Fruean at centre, Matt Garland replaces Lowe on the right wing and Shannan Chase replaces Garland at fullback.
On the subs bench Jarvy Aoake is promoted from the Saracens to replace Kean, Hugh Renton returns from injury to replace Ben Hamelink, Eaton swaps with Weber and Dan McIntyre is promoted from the Saracens to replace Chase.
Hawke's Bay Rugby Football Union officials are encouraging fans to attend the game in fancy dress. The best dressed adult will win two tickets to the New Zealand Sevens in Wellington and the best dressed child will win a 2017 Magpies family season membership.
In the curtainraisers, the HB Role Models in Education (HB school teachers representing more than 20 HB schools) take on their Manawatu counterparts from 2.05pm and the Hawke's Bay Ross Shield team will take on a Hawke's Bay under-13 selection from 3.40pm.
In addition to free face painting from 4pm until 5pm all the non-playing Magpies will be set up behind the Harris Stand signing posters and they will be available for selfies.
Entertainment at the game includes the return of the Dance Express Dancers, PPV will again perform and just before kick off the Lowe Rescue Helicopter will arrive with a couple of Magpies to deliver the match ball.
During the day, there will be loads of giveaways from vouchers, jerseys, beanies and signed balls.
■ HAWKE'S BAY MAGPIES: Shannan Chase, Matt Garland, Jonah Lowe, Tiaan Falcon, Mason Emerson, Ihaia West, Brad Weber, Fa'alemiga Selesele, Tony Lamborn, Trent Boswell-Wakefield, Geoff Cridge, Mark Abbott (c), Mason Kean, Ricky Riccitelli, Tolu Fahamokioa.
Substitutes, forwards: Ash Dixon, Jason Long, Jarvy Aoake, Josh Eden-Whaitiri, Hugh Renton.
Backs: Chris Eaton, Billy Ropiha, Dan McIntyre.
■ BAY OF PLENTY STEAMERS: To be announced later today.