All you wanted to know about the teams, their coaches and their chances... Compiled by CHRIS RATTUE.
Coach: Kevin Gloag (replaces Tony Gilbert)
Assistant: Phil Young
Captain: Kelvin Middleton
Last season: Champions (7win / 2loss, semi - beat Taranaki, final - beat Waikato).
Squad: Cory Brown, Matthew Carrington, Michael Colling, David Gibson, Aaron Hunia, Brendan Laney, Mathew Priscott, Reuben Parkinson, Hayden Reid, Romi Ropati; John Blaikie, Carl Hayman, Andrew Hore, Joe McDonnell, Isitolo Maka, Simon Maling, Kelvin Middleton, Eugene Morgan, Brendon Timmins, Hale Tu'uhoko, John Watkins, Tom Willis.
Gains: Pita Alatini (Southland), Watkins (Queensland).
Losses: Duncan Blaikie, Jeremy Stanley (injured), John Leslie (Scotland), Kupu Vanisi (Wellington).
Prospects: The Otago side under new coach Kevin Gloag, who was Tony Gilbert's assistant in the Super 12, is almost unrecognisable from last year.
They may have some All Blacks - including Southland recruit Alatini - back for early NPC games but must battle through most of the season with a side including eight newcomers mainly from the club scene.
They include halfback Brown, the brother of the All Black Tony Brown, plus fellow backs Gibson (the national under-19 halfback), Hunia, Priscott and Reid, and forwards Tu'uhoko, Watkins and Willis. Prop Watkins hails from Queensland while flanker Tu'uhoko comes from Auckland and played for Counties junior teams before studying computing at Otago Polytechnic.
It will be a tough job for Gloag, the former South Canterbury coach who has also been involved with the national under-19 side, to repeat last year's triumph without All Blacks Taine Randell, Jeff Wilson, Byron Kelleher, Tony Brown, Kees Meeuws, Carl Hoeft, Anton Oliver and Josh Kronfeld. And Gloag's ability to get new players and combinations working may take a back seat to the needs of returning All Blacks early on.
The transfer of Vanisi and injuries to Stanley and Blaikie are also major blows. Stanley will not be back this year but Blaikie, who has a facial fracture, could return by about round four.
Coachs' Goal: "Our aim is to make the top four. The Otago public loves their rugby but they are realistic about our chances this year," said Gloag.
TAB Odds: $10
Coach: Bob Telfer (2nd year)
Assistant: Brian Dickison Captain: Brett McCormack
Last season: 9th (2win/7loss)
Squad: Andrew Flint, Pailate Fili, Anthony Lafaiali'i, Phil Taylor, Craig Wells, Josh Heke, Mark Seymour, Ray MacDonald, Damon Templeton, Brett McCormack; Paul Miller, Stu Harvey, Bevan Leckner, Jeremy Winders, Brendon Pascoe, Steve Jackson, Justin Cullen, Roger Newell, Simon Kerr, Aaron Dempsey, Nigel Horrell, Davin Heaps, Clark Frew.
Gains: Lafaiali'i (Thames Valley), Wells (ACT), Cullen (UK), Kerr (Sydney).
Losses: Pita Alatini (Otago), Simon Culhane (Otago), Mike Mika (Coventry), Richard Borland (retired), Lio Falaniko (North Harbour).
Prospects: On the face of it, Southland have lost some important players.
The big loss is Alatini but he would only have had a limited role if he makes the World Cup squad. Former All Black Culhane left after falling out with coach Telfer. French lock Philippe Farner was sacked last season, and like fellow lock Falaniko, played only a handful of games in 1998 anyway.
With coach Telfer raving about the prospects of former NSW prop Kerr, the loss of Mika and Borland should be more than compensated for. Norm Hewitt has also departed (for Wellington), although he did not play a match because of injury last season.
Telfer has dropped fullback Aaron Kimura, placing his faith in Flint instead, and promoted young club prop Horrell. McCormack has replaced Heaps as captain, saying the leadership responsibilities may have affected the hooker's game.
Auckland club wing Lafaiali'i was Thames Valley's top try scorer last season, midfield back Wells was part of the Brumbies Super 12 squad, and the 29-year-old Cullen has plenty of experience with Otago. Southland will struggle to get near the semifinals but Kerr, Cullen and Wells are interesting imports.
Coachs' Goals: "We want to do better than last year and we've got to knock over a few barriers. I don't think Southland have ever won a first division game away from home and we've really got to get that out of the way early. Playing away shouldn't make that much difference these days," said Telfer.
TAB Odds: $100
Coach: Robbie Deans (third year)
Assistant: Steve Hansen
Captain: Todd Blackadder
Last season: 3rd (6 win/3 loss, semi - lost to Waikato)
Squad: (probable inclusions) Mal Arnold, Aaron Flynn, James Kerr, Steve Lancaster, Daryl Lilley, Leon MacDonald, Mark Mayerholfer, Afato So'oalo; Con Barrell, Todd Blackadder, Sean Cuttance, Angus Gardiner, Dave Hewett, Graham Jack, Rob McConnell, Clark McLeod, Scott Robertson, Matt Sexton, Steve Surridge, Reuben Thorne.
Gains: Robinson (Taranaki), Greg Feek (Taranaki).
Losses: Stu Loe (West Coast), Kevin Nepia, Tabai Matson (Europe), Nathan Mauger (injury).
Prospects: Canterbury will be hard hit by the loss of players to the World Cup squad. Daryl Gibson, Andrew Mehrtens, Justin Marshall, Greg Feek, Mark Hammett and Norm Maxwell are certainties, Thorne is likely, while others like Somerville are rough chances if injuries strike the test squad.
Coach Robbie Deans names his squad on Thursday, just two days before Canterbury's opening match against Taranaki. Canterbury's major losses include Matson, who did not play last year because of injury, and Nepia.
Centre Mauger is out for the season with a knee injury while former All Black midfielder Mayerhofler is still struggling with a hamstring problem and may not start the NPC season. The 1998 Taranaki centre Robinson, who has returned from studies in England, will compensate for the loss of midfield players.
The signing of Feek from Taranaki and Somerville from Hawkes Bay has been one of the great front row recruitment drives in New Zealand rugby, mirroring Otago's effort in bringing Kees Meeuws and Carl Hoeft south. Feek may get some early NPC games before the World Cup.
Canterbury do not look as badly hit by World Cup defections as Otago, especially as their backup players have greater pedigree. They will be one of the NPC frontrunners under the wily coaching of Robbie Deans.
Coachs' Goals: "The loss of established (All Black) playmakers from the NPC gives it a bit of an unknown quantity. The finals are too far away to start making predictions. We will just aim to represent the province as best as we can," said Deans.
TAB Odds: $3.50
Coach: Kiwi Searancke (replaces John Boe)
Assistant: Ian Foster
Captain: Deon Muir
Last season: 2nd (7 win/2 loss, semi - beat Canterbury, final - lost to Otago)
Squad: Todd Miller, Damian Karauna, Grant McQuoid, Bruce Reihana, Keith Lowen, Roger Randle, Mark Ranby, Scott McLeod, Matthew Cooper, Glen Jackson, Michael Blank, Rhys Duggan, Ben Willis; Deon Muir, Tony Petero, Hayden Scown, Nick Holten, David Dillon, Marty Holah, Ryan Wheeler, Royce Willis, Mark Cooksley, Chresten Davis, Michael Collins, Paul Martin, David Briggs, Guy Coleman.
Gains: Ranby (Vikings), Davis (Vikings), Willis (Auckland).
Losses: Dean Anglesey, Richard Coventry (Japan), Nick Mantell, Greg Smith (unavailable), Ian Foster (retired), Jason Spice (Wellington), Aaron Hopa.
Prospects: Waikato have some key losses from last season, and none-more-so than the late Aaron Hopa. With Fiji captain Smith out and Mantell unavailable due to medical studies, the 25-year-old Guy Coleman is the only recognised hooker in the squad. Coleman, who came to Waikato via Bay of Plenty and Manawatu age-grade teams, has played just a couple of games for Waikato.
Coach Kiwi Searancke is considering national Colts hooker Anton Edwards, the Wanganui player who is now with Hamilton Marist. Prop Michael Collins could be converted into the hooking role. Waikato are still hoping to secure Brumbies prop Rod Moore.
With Willis still on the test bench, Waikato should squeeze a couple of matches out of him before the World Cup. The arrival of former All Black Davis will partly compensate for the loss of Willis. Searancke must develop a new loose forward combination, with two inexperienced openside flankers in Holah and Dillon.
All eyes will be on first five-eighths Jackson who goes into the season as the number one pivot with Foster retired. The veteran Cooper will be under pressure to hold his place, while Waikato have class to burn in the outside backs. With Otago and Canterbury hit by All Black defections, this could be the year of the Mooloo.
Coachs' Goals: "Like everyone, we want to make that top four. The Ranfurly Shield is a special trophy but our ultimate goal is the NPC," said Searancke.
TAB Odds: $3.50
Coach: Graham Mourie (2nd year)
Assistant: Dave Rennie
Captain: Norm Hewitt
Last season: 6th (4 wins/1 draw/4 losses)
Squad: Colin Sullivan, Paul Steinmetz, Brad Fleming, Elvis Seveali'i, Lome Fa'atau, Ali Koko, Jason O'Halloran, Norm Broughton, David Holwell, Riki Flutey, Jason Spice, Dan Kirton, Evan Belford; Filo Tiatia, Sene Ta'ala, Kupu Vanisi, Jerry Collins, Hemi Pou, Deon Waller, Enoke Afeaki, Mike Jeppesen, Mike Edwards,Kepi Faivaii, Kevin Yates, Murray Driver, Norm Hewitt, Shane Carter, Ace Tiatia.
Gains: Holwell (Northland), Spice (Waikato), Flutey (Hawkes Bay), Fleming (Canterbury), Vanisi (Otago), Waller (Central Vikings), Yates (Bath), Hewitt (Southland).
Losses: Martin Leslie (Scotland), Jon Preston (Bath), Dwayne Russell (injured), Elton Moncrief (Europe), Steve Gordon (retired).
Prospects: Loowe forward Leslie and half Preston were at the heart of the Wellington cause, and their loss is major. Inside back Russell broke his arm a couple of weeks ago. Wellington will miss test backs Alama Ieremia, Christian Cullen and Tana Umaga for all or most of the campaign.
Spice is a quality halfback but the jury is out on first five-eighths Holwell. The squad includes new halfback Kirton, the son of former All Black and national selector Earle Kirton, and new wings Seveali'i and Fa'atau. Inside back Broughton returns after a couple of years absence. Watch out for 1998 national secondary schools captain Flutey, who plays at halfback and first-five, and national age-grade loose forward star Collins. Wing Fleming had a season with Canterbury in 1996 and has been a contracted national sevens player.
Vanisi is a top recruit but a World Cup chance. Fellow flanker Dallas Seymour (hamstring) could return through the season. Controversial English prop Yates and Super 12 lock Waller, who hails from Manawatu, could help give Wellington a respected pack. Hooker Tiatia is unsettled with Hewitt's arrival and may try his luck at Waikato. It looks the perfect season for Wellington to make a major move forward.
Coachs' Goal: "We want to form a strong base in Wellington but it is too early to make too many predictions. Like everyone else, we are aiming to make the top four," said Mourie.
TAB Odds: $12.00
Coach: Bryce Woodward (replaces Wayne Pivac)
Assistant: Donny Stevenson
Captain: Glenn Taylor
Last season: 10th (0 wins/9 losses)
Squad: Clint Going, Hayden Taylor, Patrick Petelo, Mark Subritzky, Jason Shoemark, Jared Going, Jason Hita, Norm Berryman, Robbie Johnson, Tony Monaghan, Tim Kareko, Sam Pinder; Tim Henwood, Alan Tubbs, Mathew Webber, Justin Collins, Vula Maimuri, Geoff Crawford, Glenn Taylor, Mike Storey, Tim Knight, Nicky White, Jason Hammond, Joe Ross.
Gains: Kareko (Central Vikings), Webber, Patelo (Auckland).
Losses: David Holwell (Wellington), Robert Rush (Auckland), Craig McGrath (Otago), Duncan Bell (injured), Graham Hilton-Jones (unavailable), Jason Barrell (Auckland/retired), Blair Larsen (Japan), John Pickering (France).
Prospects: Northland will continue with part time coaches. Northland B coach Bryce Woodward, a surveying and planning company director, takes over. The Waikato-bred Woodward's playing career as a fullback included stints with Otago's University A, King Country, and the Bahrain sevens team, even facing New Zealand in Hong Kong in 1989. Donny Stevenson, a Kaeo schoolteacher, continues as his assistant. Northland have a fulltime manager - Michael "Iceblock" Jones - and sports psychologist Gilbert Enoka works with the squad.
Northland must get over last season's turmoil and win back support. On paper, their player losses are significant. Tough prop Barrell went overseas then joined Auckland before retiring because of a neck injury, former All Black forward Larsen left after one season, and Holwell has departed. Fijian prop Joe Veitayaki and wing Fero Lasagavibau are excluded by World Cup commitments, and midfield back Bell is out after knee surgery. Former Auckland loose forward Webber, who has played for Eastern Province, is among the recruits.
Wing Hayden Robinson will push for a place when he shakes off a hamstring problem. Northland suffered last year through Taylor's long term injuries, and their cohesion fell apart. They face an uphill battle but discovering spirit and a common goal will be paramount.
Coachs' Goal: "We need an early win and the players have to take ownership...they have put their hands up and said they never want to go through what happened last year again. Taranaki's effort last year is a model for us," said Woodward.
TAB Odds: $40.
Coach: Wayne Pivac (replaces Maurice Trapp)
Assistant: Grant Fox
Captain: Paul Thomson
Last season: 8th (4 wins/5 losses)
Squad: Adrian Cashmore, Malili Muliana, Doug Howlett, Dan Parkinson, Caleb Ralph, Rico Gear, Ilisea Tanivula, Eroni Clarke, Craig Innes, Orene Ai'i, Aidan Vince, Steve Devine, Ofisa Tonu'u; Samiu Vahafolau, Michael Jones, Xavier Rush, Finau Maka, Mark Carter, Leo Lafaiali'i, Charles Riechelmann, Milton Ngauamo/Dean Bassett/Richard Rasmussen, Paul Thomson, Scott Palmer, Kalua Fukofuka, Paul Mitchell, Keven Mealamu.
Gains: Palmer (France).
Losses: Jeremy Stanley (Otago), Ben Willis (Waikato), Pouesi Fitisemanu (North Harbour), Brad Morris (loan - Nelson Bays).
Prospects: Auckland needs credibility after strange times which include Wayne Pivac replacing Jed Rowlands, sacked on Super 12 performance.
New prop Palmer, with 30 games for North Harbour before playing in France, is joined by tighthead Fukofuka, an Auckland development player who has been out for 18 months with a back injury. Former King Country hooker Mitchell starts his Auckland career after being sidelined by injury last season. The 20-year-old Mealamu, a converted flanker, is the other hooker.
Jason Chandler, the former Auckland lock who has been playing in England, is out for two months with a knee injury, meaning a possible recall for Ngauamo although Papatoetoe's Bassett and Ponsonby's Rasmussen are contenders. New Zealand under-19 right wing Muliana is also a fullback option. Cashmore will miss the first round with a knee injury. The squad includes Auckland development back Tanivula, a Super 12 Brumbie. Vince and national Colt Ai'i will battle for first five if Carlos Spencer is World Cup-bound.
Dylan Mika, Andrew Blowers, Robin Brooke and Craig Dowd are World Cup prospects who will miss all or most of the campaign. Samoan wing Brian Lima's future is uncertain after the World Cup so is not included. Fellow Samoan wing George Harder, who has a knee injury, has also missed out. Hooker James Christian and prop Grant Hill, who is being converted to hooker, are among those who have missed initial selection.
Coachs' Goal: "Auckland expects to support winners and we must give them something to cheer about," said Pivac.
TAB Odds: $3.75.
Co-coaches: Mac McCallion, Andrew Talaimanu (5th year)
Captain: Lee Lidgard or Glen Marsh
Last season: 5th (4 win/ 1 draw/ 4 loss)
Squad: Loki Crichton, Paul Tom, Jonah Lomu, Joeli Vidiri, Jona Qio, David Wood, Salesi MoiMoi, George Leaupepe, Martin Stanley, Josh Levi, Blair Feeney, Danny Lee; Koula Tukino, George Stowers, Jason Lett, Hare Makiri, Glen Marsh, Api Naevo, Andrew Campbell, Jim Coe, Yonadab Urkidi, Lee Lidgard, Sione Sione, John Akurangi, Grant Henson.
Gains: Campbell (Ireland).
Losses: Errol Brain (Japan), Tony Marsh, Richard Fromont (France), Russell Thompson (Wairarapa Bush), Paula Bosiewaga (Fiji), Andrew Roose, Michael Scott (retired).
Prospects: It will be Mac McCallion's last season in charge. His assistant for the past four seasons Andrew Talaimanu has joined McCallion as co-coach, and been appointed to take over for the next two seasons. They have worked wonders with what sometimes seems an under-strength squad, but last year the comings and goings of representative players proved just too much as they just failed to make the semifinals again. The Steelers are boosted by the return of centre Leaupepe, from England, for the early NPC games before he joins Manu Samoa. They hope to get Tony Marsh back from France.
The departure of Brain could hurt - he may have been fading slightly as a player but his leadership was a central part of Counties-Manukau. Tighthead prop Sione, midfield back Levi, and young loose forward/lock Stowers are promoted from club ranks, and former Southland lock Campbell joins the squad via a stint in Ireland. Lock Gavin Giles, back from England, could come into contention. Lomu's involvement will be limited because of the World Cup, but he has not played a significant part in recent years anyway.
The Steelers face questions in the front row and the tight five in general.
They have also lost the experience of hooker Roose, who suffered a serious neck injury in training this year. Lidgard and Glen Marsh are the candidates for captain, who will be named next week.
Coachs' Goal: "We want to play the attractive type of game we are known for," said Talaimanu.
TAB Odds: $10.
Coach: Wayne Shelford (second year)
Assistant: Allan Pollock
Captain: Frano Botica
Last season: 7th (4 wins/ 5 losses)
Squad: Glenn Davis, Aisea Tuilevu, Rua Tipoki, Karl Te Nana, Eric Rush, Glen Osborne, Marc Ellis, Walter Little, Frano Botica, Billy Fulton, Mark Robinson; Ron Cribb, Manako Tonga, Blair Urlich, Robbie Ford, Troy Flavell, Lio Falaniko, Ian Jones, Jeff Fahrensohn, Tony Coughlan, Fosi Pala'amo, Pip Griffin, Les Bone, Slade McFarland, Russell King.
Gains: Tuilevu (Waikato), Te Nana (Wellington), Tonga (Auckland), Falaniko (Southland), Ford (Canterbury), Griffin (Waikato), Pala'amo (Canterbury), King (Waikato).
Losses: Frank Bunce (Europe), Blair Foote (England), Hayden Wright (injury), Pita Wilson (Japan), Adri Geldenhuys (Italy), Nick Moore (South Africa), Hayden Ferris (retired).
Prospects: North Harbour must wait to find out if World Cup selections will take away their three main locks, Jones, Falaniko and Flavell. Geldenhuys, the former South African test lock, added plenty of steel to the pack last year but will not return meaning Harbour will dip into their B side for replacements if they lose their frontliners to the World Cup.
They have lost a stack of loose forwards and are banking on Urlich, who played just two matches off the bench last year, to form a combination with Cribb and possibly Flavell. They have gained new loose forwards in Ford and Tonga, who played on the wing for the second Otahuhu side last season.
There is also a new look to the front row candidates who include Pala'amo, the Manu Samoa test tighthead who has been playing in Sydney and latterly Canterbury, prop Griffin and hooker King. Big Takapuna prop Les Bone has also won initial selection. Ellis will miss the first couple of weeks with a knee injury, while first five-eighths backup Nicky Little has World Cup commitments with Fiji. Coach Wayne Shelford is playing what he rates his strongest side against Northland in a warm-up game in Whangarei tomorrow. That side, plus the injured Ellis, Fahrensohn and Griffin, make up the initial NPC squad.
Coachs' Goal: "We haven't set a specific goal but the makeup of our side, with speed out wide and fast loose forwards, means we want to move the ball," said Pollock.
TAB Odds: $10.
Coach: Colin Cooper (replaces Jed Rowlands)
Assistant: Kieran Crowley
Captain: Andy Slater
Last season: 4th (6 win/ 3 loss, semi - lost to Otago)
Squad: Mark Urwin, Neil Brew, Filipo Toala, Mepi Faoagali, Feapolou Soolefai, Kerry Eynon, Dean Magon, Jamie Cameron, Richard Jarman, Brendon Haami; Campbell Feather, Darryl Fale, Chris Luke, Neil Crowley, Kevin Barrett, Andy Slater, Paul Tito, Gordon Slater, Tama Tuirirangi, Tony Penn, Jason Hooper, Dawson Tamati, Daniel Smith.
Gains: Cameron (London Scottish), Eynon (Waikato), Hooper, Smith (Wanganui), Luke (Portugal).
Losses: Scott Patterson (Scotland), Mark Robinson, Greg Feek (Canterbury), Scott Lines (Bristol), Shane McDonald (Britain), Jason Holland (Ireland).
Prospects: New Taranaki coach Colin Cooper and assistant Kieran Crowley, the former test fullback who has coached the development side, have lost new test prop Feek and centre Robinson, tipped by many as destined for higher honours, to Canterbury.
With Gordon Slater a World Cup chance, Taranaki will carry four props early on including newcomer Penn who like Tuirirangi is a New Zealand Colt. Taranaki have reclaimed another prop Hooper from Wanganui, and secured hooker Smith from Wanganui on loan. Loose forward Luke is a Taranaki original who has played three years in Portugal.
The 27-year-old centre Eynon, who has played more than 70 games for Taranaki,has been lured back from a two year stint in the Waikato. The 29-year-old Cameron, a 1996 Hurricane, returned from England to replace last year's ever present first five-eighths Holland who has stayed in Ireland.
Samoan Pacific Rim wing/midfield back Soolefai is promoted after two years in Taranaki club rugby. He speaks little English and is known as "Hats", the translation of his name. Taranaki invest plenty in their development side, and have formed a relationship with Wanganui who act as a feeder.
Cooper intends using a more expansive approach than last year, the reason strong midfield back Faoagali will play on the wing.
Coachs' Goal: "We want to win more games than we lose. Our forwards might be a bit light but I know they'll die for the cause. We'll have a bit of a different game plan to last season," said Cooper.
TAB Odds: $25.
All you wanted to know about the teams, their coaches and their chances... Compiled by CHRIS RATTUE.