A surprise trip to the 2014 NZRL National Premiership final has given the Wai-Coa-Bay Stallions a boost in confidence that anything is possible for the new season.
The Upper Central Zone side, drawn from Waikato, Coastline and Bay of Plenty districts, built on that confidence in last week's opening round, beating the Counties Manukau Stingrays for the first time, 18-8.
That outcome sets the Stallions up well for the rest of their schedule, which sees them host defending champions Canterbury Bulls in Tauranga today.
Those two teams were surprise finalists last October, when Counties and Akarana Falcons were relegated down the points ladder for fielding ineligible players.
Even though Wai-Coa-Bay were well beaten on that occasion, head coach Tony Lajpold was proud of how his players responded with just a couple of days' notice, having ended their regular season three weeks earlier.
"It has given us a little bit more encouragement," he said. "We always want to make a final, but we needed to understand what it takes.
"After bringing in a new culture to the team, making that final last year was a bonus and even though we were beaten comprehensively, the effort was still there."
The Stallions' winning start to the new campaign was another early endorsement of that culture, which has often struggled to bring together the best players of a far-flung territory for a common purpose.
While most premiership teams train once a week (and some not even that), Lajpold brings his men together twice a week from all over the zone. They train centrally at Matamata, with transportation laid on from Hamilton, Tokoroa and Rotorua.
"We decided on what type of football we wanted to play, and selected players who were coachable and whose behaviour was right, on and off the field.
"Our motivation is for our players to be better footballers and end up with some kind of contract that enables them to see the world."
With one win already under the belt, the Stallions find themselves up against a Bulls outfit playing their first game of the competition on the road. The titleholders may just be vulnerable to in-form underdogs.
"This will be another good challenge," Lajpold said. "I think it will be a good game.
"We'll compete and if we can improve in certain aspects, we'll go close."
- Match details:
Wai-Coa-Bay Stallions v Canterbury Bulls, Tauranga Domain, 1.30pm today
Stallions team: 1-Vinnie Morunga, 2-Victor Karora Reu, 3-Tamatoa Karora Reu, 4-Tamati Marr, 5-Josh Tupou, 6-Johnson Peri, 7-Hayden Karena, 8-Eruera Keepa, 9-Patrick Russell, 10-Keanu Dawson, 11-Weyan Hewitt, 12-Jeremy Seulipa, 13-Nick Read. Reserves: 14-Raureti Grace, 15-Tupara Tupara, 16-Israel Vano-Storer, 17-Mosese Mafi, 18-Malcom Noda, 19-Hamiora Muhaka (two to be omitted). Referee: Kena Waikai; Touch: Henare Chadwick and Nick Gibson.