North Harbour may have turned back the clock when it came to putting their squad together, but they will not want to dwell on history for too long.

Despite some of New Zealand's most flamboyant rugby talent having passed through their ranks, Harbour have never managed to sustain success long enough to be regarded as a big player in the NPC.

Last season's fifth placing was a familiar tale of so near but yet so far.

They finished equal with Taranaki in fourth spot, but dipped out by virtue of their loss in New Plymouth.

North Harbour should be one of the sides to benefit from the All Blacks missing the first half of this NPC season.

The absence of Ron Cribb and Troy Flavell will take away a lot of running power from their pack, but they face less disruption than a number of the other sides expected to push for semifinal places.

One of the early-season selection posers will be at first five-eighths. Willy Walker has the flair typical in North Harbour backlines.

But if there are any early wobbles and problems in directing North Harbour around the field, it is easy to see coaches Wayne Shelford and Allan Pollock turning to Frano Botica, who at nearly 38 deserves the sometimes overused description of veteran.

And one of the great intrigues will be what influence Glen Osborne can bring from fullback.

At his best, Osborne, who is close to 30, was one of the best outside-back runners New Zealand rugby has seen. But his seasons at Biarritz were hindered by injury and it remains to be seen if he can find the skills that made him the fullback in Laurie Mains' 1995 World Cup team.

One area of security should be the starting front row.

Tongan tighthead Tevita Taumoepeau, who transferred from Bay of Plenty, was seen by this year's Blues coaches as the cornerstone of the pack for seasons to come.

National Colt loosehead Tony Woodcock has been rated one of this country's best prop prospects for the past couple of years and now gets his chance to prove his worth in the NPC.

With Slade McFarland at hooker, North Harbour look handy in an area that has not always been a strength for them, although back-up props John Buchanan and Adrian Donald are NPC rookies.

No 2 hooker Ace Tiatia will act as No 8 cover for Blair Urlich, and Cribb is with the All Blacks in what will be a super-quick loose forward unit if Matua Parkinson and Craig Newby start.

North Harbour, as always, are loaded with pace and flair. But, as always, the test will be how they deal with sides such as Taranaki and Waikato, who will always feel they can grind them into submission.

And 2001 will also probably be the moment of truth for coaches Shelford and Pollock. Failure will make it difficult for them to survive into a fifth season.

2001 NPC schedules