Ponsonby will be chasing their third Auckland premier club championship in the past four years when the 2005 season starts today.

Despite being without more than half of last year's championship-winning team, there is still an air of confidence at the club's Western Springs headquarters.

One of the club's most famous sons, Bryan Williams, is the club's rugby director. While he concedes the loss of key players is a blow, he says there is great depth at the club and other players will now get opportunities.

"Our senior 1 and senior 3 sides won their championships last season while our under-21s were beaten in the championship final by Marist after winning the championship for the previous three years.

"So there is a lot of talent at the club. We remain confident of a strong showing in this season's championship."

Former All Black Ofisa Tonu'u has moved on with the blessing of the club. Ponsonby's loss is Waitakere City's gain as Tonu'u will turn out for the west Aucklanders and will run the backs as assistant coach to former Manu Samoa loose forward Pati Malagi.

Others missing from Ponsonby's side from last year are first five-eighths Murray Williams, hooker Nathan Kemp, props Census Johnston and Soane Tonga'uiha, lock Sam Woods, flanker Regan Tamihere, centre Gavin Williams (son of Bryan Williams) and No 2 halfback Kane Hancy.

Ponsonby takes on Otahuhu at Otahuhu's home ground, Sturges Park, and Waitakere City, one of last season's big improvers, play University at Colin Maiden Park.

While too much cannot be read into pre-season matches, Waitakere City have shown good form, beating last season's North Harbour club champion Massey and another high-ranking North Harbour club, North Shore, and losing narrowly to Northcote.

Ponsonby have also had pre-season wins over Massey and North Shore.

Grammar-Carlton, beaten 29-18 by Ponsonby in last year's championship final for the Gallaher Shield, open their season against Suburbs at Avondale No 1.

Suburbs, often a contender for the premier championship, struggled last season, finishing ninth in the 10-team Gallaher Shield round and narrowly missing relegation.

In today's other premier 1 matches, Marist meet East Tamaki at East Tamaki and 2003 Gallaher Shield winner Waitemata play Te Papapa-Onehunga at Fergusson Park.

Interesting newcomers to Auckland premier rugby are Waiheke Island, who take on Roskill Districts at Fearon Park.

NORTH HARBOUR

Having a number of players who are fringe Blues Super 12 squad members could have a spin-off for the North Harbour premier club rugby competition which begins today.

The likes of Nick Williams (Northcote), Tom Harding and Ben Meyer (North Shore), Tom Coughlan and Rudi Wulf (Marist) and Roger Dustow (Massey) have had little or no game time with the Blues and it is likely many of them will be released to their clubs for the early rounds.

Another of the Blues' expanded squad, Rua Tipoki, who had a fine NPC with Bay of Plenty, is also likely to be with Glenfield for much of this season.

Last year's impressive championship winner, Massey, even though they have lost coach Graham Lowe to the representative colts side, again loom as a force.

The experienced Steve Jackson will again captain the side from lock. The return of Tusi Pisi (from Italy) and Anthony Tuitavake (from the Highlanders), will mean another imposing backline.

Shore, Takapuna and Northcote should again be Massey's main rivals though Takapuna will be without last year's captain, representative halfback Billy Fulton, who has signed up with Northampton in England.

Silverdale, the championship winners in 2003, may be forced to rebuild with coach Charlie McAlister having moved to Palmerston North to run Manawatu's NPC team.

He has taken some Silverdale players with him and his talented son, Luke, following his return from the Super 12, is not likely to be available for too much club rugby.

Former All Black forward Blair Larsen is coaching Takapuna, former All Black centre Frank Bunce will assist his old Manu Samoa team-mate Matthew Vaea with Shore, Walter Little (for the second consecutive season) will be assisting with Glenfield and Wayne Shelford has an advisory role with Navy.

The tightest matches in round one should be between Shore and Northcote at Devonport and between Massey and Helensville at Helensville. Glenfield meet Takapuna at Kaipatiki Park and are tipped as big improvers.

COUNTIES MANUKAU

In the union's 50th jubilee year, major changes have happened in the premier club competition.

Twelve clubs have entered the new competition, with the club reserve teams travelling and playing curtain-raisers for their premiers.

The teams will be split into two pools of six based on last year's placing. One grading round will be played with the top three teams in each pool going to the premier 1 competition; the bottom three head to the premier 2 competition. Two full home and away rounds will be played before the club finals on July 23.

Last year's undefeated champions, Pukekohe, look to be the team to beat when competition begins next week.

The Joeli Vidiri-coached team have retained the core of last year's side and picked up some handy additions in winger Tui Taufoou and seven's star Amasio Valence.

The other major contenders look to be Waiuku, Manurewa, Ardmore Marist and possible dark horse Patumahoe.

Waiuku will again be strong. They were unlucky not to win last year's final against Pukekohe, and will have a strong forward pack. They have managed to keep the core of last year's side but the loss of second-five Duncan Bell and lock Raymon Lyndsey could affect their chances.

Manurewa have a number of new young and talented players, including New Zealand under-19 representative Sekope Kepu and exciting wingers Lelia Masaga and Setefano Sauqaqa.

The return of prop Vai Folau from injury will add to the forward pack.

Ardmore Marist have lost props James Afoa and Andrew Tiiti but this has been offset by the introduction of Ronnie Sua.

The club is also looking forward to the arrival of Tongan international lock Lisiate Fa'aoso. Their backs again look promising.

Patumahoe have recruited key Auckland players in No 8 Geoff Maka and halfback Kane Hancy and should be strong enough to make the premier 1 competition and unsettle some of the larger clubs.