It will be a very surreal sight when the Steelform Wanganui squad takes the field for their first hit out of the pre-season today in Taihape, in more ways than one, for the "Game of Three Halves" with Bay of Plenty and the Manawatu Evergreens at Memorial Park.
For the first time in the Heartland era, there is neither retired skipper Cole Baldwin or his 2017 co-captain Roman Tutauha in the senior team, ending both a partnership and hooker position rivalry which helped carry the side to multiple Meads Cup championships.
The prognosis for Tutauha was not good after he walked off Cooks Gardens last Saturday with a broken arm during his McCarthy's Transport Ruapehu team's Tasman Tanning Premier grand final victory.
Wanganui coach Jason Caskey, who acknowledges the union was blessed to be able to interchange two quality hookers and captains for the past few seasons, said Tutauha went under the knife on Tuesday.
"He's going to have plates inserted, the surgeon said [at least] two months. If it's three, that's pretty much [the season].
"Ideally, it wasn't what we scripted but we were looking at bringing Jack [Yarrall] in and giving Dylan [Gallien] a look in."
Yarrall was first blooded by Caskey in the 2016 Heartland season, which is now looking very wise in post script, while Gallien played for the New Zealand Heartland Under 19 squad in 2016-17.
"It's up to those two boys to do their set piece roles well," said Caskey.
"If they struggle with lineouts, we might have to look outside the square.
"It's an important role and if their throw in is no good, it puts the team under pressure.
"At this stage, we back them fully."
Today will also be a chance for several newcomers to make the most of their chance, such as young backs Tyler Rogers-Holden, Harry Symes, Junior Ainea and Joshua Fifita, while Wanganui Car Centre fullback Shandon Scott has the inside running for now ahead of Waverley Harvesting Border's Nick Harding.
Despite missing most of the Premier season due to a shoulder injury, Ethan Robinson has hung onto the spot he earned in 2017 and Caskey says they have these next two weeks to work him back into match fitness.
With Ruapehu's Campbell Hart still mending from a fractured eye socket, Waikato loan player Henri Williams brings in his 2m tall frame to join incumbent lock Sam Madams, who could well be after the NZ Heartland XV jumper denied to him in contentious circumstances last year.
Today's match, or rather, three matches of 40 minutes, will be a first for all concerned within the Wanganui camp – a previous attempt to have a three-team event a few seasons ago fell through with Wanganui just playing Wairarapa Bush in Palmerston North.
Wanganui will start the game against Bay of Plenty, and then play their "second half" against Manawatu, before the two Mitre 10 Cup unions go at it for the final 40 minutes.
Caskey said in arranging the draw, he felt it was better for his squad to play back-to-back, staying warm to face a cold opposition in the second half, rather than taking the break in the middle.
"Probably be looking at it as two games, the different opposition.
"My mindset is mix [the squad] up a bit, don't want your strongest team in the first half, and then leave your young guys on for the second.
"We said we were keener to go two in a row because the other two are more professional and realistically have trained a bit more, and fitter."
Caskey also felt it would be better for Manawatu and Bay of Plenty to get a gauge on their current squads by going at it for the final 40 minutes of the match after they have both warmed up against Wanganui.
After the game, Caskey and his fellow Wanganui selectors will take the weekend to assess any injuries and the status of those players who can't currently play, before naming a final squad to prepare for the Ranfurly Shield Challenge to Taranaki in Hawera next Saturday.
Kickoff today with Wanganui vs Bay of Plenty is at 1pm.
The wider Wanganui squad is:
Forwards: Jackson Campbell (Ruapehu); Wiremu Cotterell (Taihape); Dylan Gallien (Taihape); Tremaine Gilbert (Taihape); Gabriel Hakaraia (Ruapehu); Campbell Hart (Ruapehu); Peter-Travis Hay-Horton (Taihape); Jack Hodges (Border); Jamie Hughes (Ruapehu); Kamipeli Latu (Border); Sam Madams (Marist); Angus Middleton (Border); Cade Robinson (Kaierau); Viki Tofa (Marist); Henri Williams (Fraser Tech, Waikato); Jack Yarrall (Marist).
Backs: Junior Ainea (Pirates); Craig Clare (Ruapehu); Cameron Crowley (Marist); Kaveni Dabenaise (Border); Simon Dibben (Marist); Joshua Fifita (Ruapehu); Lindsay Horrocks (Border); Kameli Kuruyabaki (Taihape); Penijamini Nabainivalu (Marist); Ethan Robinson (Kaierau); Tyler Rogers-Holden (Border); Shandon Scott (Kaierau); Harry Symes (Border); Dane Whale (Taihape).