Hawke's Bay Tui women's rugby coach Steve Woods has never been one for bold predictions ... until now.
"Our girls are definitely fitter and better conditioned than last year. We can improve on last year's semifinal finish and reach the final," Woods said as he browsed over the Big Barrel Tui side's Farah Palmer Cup Championship draw.
Poor fitness levels and a lack of depth were exposed when the Tui lost last year's semifinal 34-10 to Otago Spirit in Dunedin.
"Obviously all the other provinces are going to be in the same boat in terms of improvements but I couldn't be happier with where we are at. All the girls are telling me and showing me they want to be in our final squad of 30," Woods explained.
The 2013 Maddison Trophy-winning coach with Napier Technical pointed out 17 of his 43-strong wider training group are in the Bay women's High Performance Group which has daily morning or afternoon training sessions at the Magpies Gym with the Hawke's Bay union's academy strength and conditioning coach Jayden Pinfold.
"Jayden has done a tremendous job with those girls. Our wider training group has had six trainings since the Hawke's Bay women's competition finished and we had 32 players at one of those sessions," Woods said.
"We had some inter-squad games last weekend and there was no holding back. Ashley continues to shine," Woods said referring to Hastings Rugby and Sports prop Ashley Palu who scored three tries for her club side in their 27-24 loss to Napier Technical in last month's Hawke's Bay final.
Palu was also powerful and prominent for Hastings Girls' High School in their 39-20 win against Karamu High School in last year's Hawke's Bay Secondary Schoolgirls final.
"Ashley is enjoying playing against women on a regular basis. She's putting a bit more into it now and I think she was holding a bit back when playing against the schoolgirls," Woods said.
"Some of those six girls who made the national Maori under-18 training camp for next week are putting their hands up. I've got my eye on four of them."
One of them is Karamu High School outside back Cortez Te Pou who Woods believes has a big future as a fullback. Former Hawke's Bay Tui and Otago Spirit outside back Michaela Baker is back in the Bay after a playing stint in Spain and Woods is impressed with her fitness levels.
"Michaela has the ability to play at 10 or in the midfield," Woods said.
His wider training squad will assemble for a boot camp at the Ocean Beach Kiwi Surf Lifesaving Club on Friday. A final trial will be played at Taradale on July 27 before the 30-strong squad is announced.
Woods will again have former Magpies pivot Shaun Bell and forwards mentor Alby Baker as his assistant coaches. He is happy with the Championship draw which will see his team open their campaign with a home match against competition newcomers Northland at Park Island on September 7.
"Northland will be a little bit of an unknown side but from what I hear they may have three or four Black Ferns returning to play for their home province."
Woods is expecting North Harbour to be eager for some pay back after the Tui side's 52-10 demolition job on them in a televised clash at Napier's McLean Park last year. Harbour will host the Tui on September 14.
The Tui will play two curtainraiser games to Mitre 10 Cup matches. The first against Taranaki on September 20 at McLean Park will be played before the Magpies host Taranaki and second against Tasman on September 27 in Nelson will be a curtainraiser to the Tasman Mako team's match against Auckland.
The Hawke's Bay Tui side's Farah Palmer Cup Championship draw is:
Saturday September 7 v Northland at Napier's Park Island 1pm; Saturday September 14 v North Harbour away 12noon; Friday September 20 v Taranaki at Napier's McLean Park 5pm; Friday September 27 v Tasman at Nelson's Trafalgar Park 5.05pm; Saturday October 5 v Otago at Napier's Park Island 12noon; Saturday October 12 Quarterfinals TBC; Saturday October 19 Semifinals TBC; Saturday October 26 Final TBC.