WAIKATO: 2001 - 5th

Waikato have missed the first-division semifinals in each of the past two seasons, which for a union which holds the Chiefs Super 12 franchise has been an unsatisfactory result.

But Auckland nudged them out of fourth spot last year by a mere point and in 2000 Waikato suffered somewhat from the added pressure of being the Ranfurly Shield holders.

But Ian Foster, who this year will be head coach after assisting Kiwi Searancke, says he is not preoccupied with simply gaining a semifinal spot, which he says is the obvious target of any NPC side.

Foster wants to develop Waikato as a complete unit and to build the province's playing depth.

In that respect he has been helped by the contribution Waikato have made nationally to the All Blacks and the Commonwealth Games squad (Marty Holah to the All Blacks and Roger Randle and Bruce Reihana to the sevens) and the fact that one warmup match clashed with the Waikato club final.

The practice game against Hawkes Bay on August 2 meant that with so many absentees, Waikato had eight players in the starting XV who were having their first match for the union.

Waikato will field much the same lineup as last year.

Giant lock Mark Cooksley will be missing because of injury and another former All Black, midfielder Scott McLeod, has gone overseas.

But there have been some useful recruits. A promising Auckland loose forward and former New Zealand Colt, Steve Bates, will add to a department where Waikato are already strong and Keith Robinson, having been with the Chiefs in the Super 12, has moved from Taranaki.

The demotion of Counties-Manukau has resulted in Loki Crichton, gifted at either fullback or first five-eighths, moving south to maintain his Super 12 link with the Chiefs. Derek Maisey, a Canterbury first five-eighths of a couple of seasons ago, is back in his home town of Tokoroa.

Motivation should not be difficult for Waikato. The province has several players who have been All Blacks or close to it.

All Blacks of the past four or five seasons have been Todd Miller, Randle, Reihana, Mark Ranby, David Hill, Rhys Duggan, Holah and Royce Willis. Dion Muir, Deacon Manu and Jonno Gibbes have played for New Zealand Maori.

But none of these players have been long-term All Blacks. They have either made a brief test appearance or been midweek players on tours. They all must have a point to make, especially Reihana, who will take up an overseas contract at the end of the NPC despite being only 26 and with plenty left to offer New Zealand rugby.

Foster, however, does not see this as an issue, nor does he think Reihana's impending departure will be a distraction.

Waikato open the NPC at home against Southland, then also have home advantage, which with Hamilton's new stadium should be considerable, against North Harbour.

That is followed by an away match against one of Waikato's bogey teams, Taranaki, who have had several recent upset wins over them, including last year at Hamilton.

GAINS

Loki Crichton (from Counties-Manukau), Derek Maisey (from overseas after a stint in Canterbury), Steve Bates (from Auckland) and Keith Robinson (from Taranaki).

LOSSES

Scott McLeod (overseas), Grant McQuoid (to Bay of Plenty) and Mark Cooksley (injured).

STRENGTHS

Two of the classiest finishers in New Zealand out wide in Roger Randle and Bruce Reihana and other competent backs in Todd Miller, Crichton, Mark Ranby, Keith Lowen, David Hill and Rhys Duggan. The forwards are solid in most departments, especially the locks and loose forwards. Jonno Gibbes is especially promising.

WEAKNESSES

Nothing too apparent in what is a sound lineup based on the Chiefs Super 12 squad.

PROSPECTS If they play to their strengths and potential, they should be a semifinalist.

WAIKATO SQUAD

Backs: Loki Crichton, Todd Miller, Bruce Reihana, Roger Randle, David Johnston, Keith Lowen, Mark Ranby, Regan King, Derek Maisey, David Hill, Isaac Boss, Rhys Duggan.

Forwards: Deon Muir (capt), Steve Bates, Scott Couch, Marty Holah, Jonno Gibbes, Chresten Davis, Keith Robinson, Sean Hohneck, Royce Willis, Guy Coleman, Greg Smith, Deacon Manu, Tony Philp, David Briggs, Michael Collins.