AUCKLAND: 2001- 4th

It is a sign of the changing guard in Auckland rugby that this year's squad will be one of the youngest fielded in the union's long history.

Wayne Pivac, who will coach the side for the fourth consecutive season with Grant Fox assisting with the backs, pointed out that the average age of the squad was only 23 and eight players were still only 20.

"Our biggest challenge is going to be our inexperience," Pivac said.

"But having said that, we have got an abundance of exciting young talent."

Of last year's side, veteran lock Robin Brooke has retired after an illustrious career, prop Paul Thomson and lock-blindside flanker Charles Riechelmann have taken up overseas contracts and the former French international prop Christian Califano has returned to Europe.

Of the other longer-serving players, only the former All Blacks in the backline, Carlos Spencer and Eroni Clarke, remain, though Lee Stensness, who played in the Super 12 for the Blues, has returned after last playing for Auckland in the NPC in 1997.

Loose forward Xavier Rush, a youthful veteran of just 25, will captain Auckland for the second consecutive season.

In recent weeks Spencer has been bothered by an injured hamstring and missed both leadup matches, against Northland and Counties-Manukau.

However he has recovered in time for the opening round, with Auckland at home to Taranaki at Eden Park tomorrow, and will be at fullback.

Auckland have another competent first five-eighths in James Arlidge, who will not be loaned to Northland as he was last year.

Another unsettling factor has been the injuries to the two halfbacks, Steve Devine and Ben Meyer. Partly to cover for that, David Gibson, a New Zealand Colt last year, has been brought up from Otago.

He becomes Auckland's other main acquisition for this year besides tighthead prop Kees Meeuws, who has returned home after many seasons in Otago.

Explosive hooker Keven Mealamu, who has had a broken arm, has recovered in time for tomorrow's start.

Taranaki used to be an Auckland bogey team, especially in the early rounds, and achieved a famous hat-trick of wins in 1996-97-98.

But that was in the years when Auckland were always affected by the huge contribution the province used to make to All Black teams. That does not happen these days, when Auckland's only All Black squad members are wing Doug Howlett and Meeuws.

And Taranaki's edge over Auckland, which started with the Ranfurly Shield upset in 1996, has not been repeated in recent years.

The team which Auckland obviously fear and respect above all others is Canterbury, and Pivac agreed that they now, rather than Auckland, set the standards for New Zealand provincial rugby.

But Pivac emphasised that he was more than happy with Auckland's preparation and the sort of accomplished young players he and Fox could call on.

By the standards of the golden Auckland era, from 1984 to 1997, expectations have become much more modest, and in each of the past two seasons Auckland were hammered in the semifinals and also in last year's shield challenge by Canterbury.

Auckland were also beaten in the 1997 semifinals and had a disastrous 1998 (eighth from the 10 teams). And success in 1999 was in a year when Canterbury and Otago were seriously depleted by their contributions to the World Cup squad.

But for all the lack of recent success, Pivac was upbeat and positive about Auckland's chances.

"No one is going into this competition just to come second."

GAINS

Kees Meeuws and David Gibson from Otago, Lee Stensness returned from overseas and James Arlidge being retained instead of being given to Northland as a loan player.

LOSSES

Robin Brooke (retired), Paul Thomson and Charles Reichelmann (overseas), Christian Califano (back to Europe) and Orene Ai'i and Joe Rokocoko (injured).

STRENGTHS

The pace and the athleticism which exists in the squad in the likes of Mils Muliaina, Doug Howlett, Iliesa Tanivula and young Ben Atiga in the backline. There are several promising forwards, too, notably a trio of locks in Ali and Bryce Williams and Bradley Mika. To balance some of the youth of the squad there is experience in backs Carlos Spencer, Stensness and Eroni Clarke, and, in the forwards, in Nick White, Xavier Rush and Justin Collins.

WEAKNESSES

This is the youngest Auckland squad in many years and inexperience clearly looms as a major challenge. There has also been a large degree of injury uncertainty over the inside backs, especially leading halfbacks such as Steve Devine and Ben Meyer.

PROSPECTS

Despite the many new players, there is an excellent spread of seasoned campaigners in most key positions. And many of the younger players such as the locks, Ali and Bryce Williams, and Mika, a member of the Crusaders Super 12 squad, are great prospects. A full-strength lineup of Muliaina, Howlett, Clarke, Stensness, Spencer, Rush, Collins, White and Mealamu should see Auckland again in the top four and possibly in the final.

AUCKLAND SQUAD

Backs: Ben Atiga, Mils Muliaina, Doug Howlett, Iliesa Tanivula, Tane Tuipulotu, Sam Tuitupou, Paul Williams, Eroni Clarke, Lee Stensness, Carlos Spencer, James Arlidge, Justin Wilson, David Gibson, Steve Devine, Craig McGrath.

Forwards: Keven Mealamu, James Christian, Simon Lemalu, Simione Taumoepeau, Nick White, Bradley Mika, Ali Williams, Bryce Williams, Scott Palmer, Justin Collins, Xavier Rush, Angus Macdonald, Daniel Braid, Sione Lauaki, Mose Tuialii.