When picking a favourite for today's Port of Tauranga Half it is hard to go past Cameron Brown, but the New Zealand legend will certainly be looking over his shoulder.

The nine-time Ironman New Zealand champion and eight-time winner of the Tauranga Half missed the event last year with injury and will have to be back at his best to overcome a quality field.

The 38-year-old is looking to make a winning return to the event he last won in 2007, on a course where he claimed seven consecutive titles from 1998 to 2004.

"It is one of my favourite races and the event that really helped launch my career," said Brown.

"It is probably the first time in the last four years or so that I have gone into this race without any injury concerns.

"I am a lot more advanced and I am ticking along nicely with my running.

"I could have won two years ago - when I had a puncture - so that aside this is probably the best shape I have been in for the Half since I last won there in 2007."

Brown, who is used to having a longer break, knows reclaiming the Tauranga title from an all-star cast won't be easy.

"They will be coming at me from all directions," said the veteran athlete. "I expect the likes of Graham O'Grady and Kieran Doe to push hard in the swim and on the bike to get a break.

"I'll be hoping for the younger guys like [James and Mark], the Bowsteads, to push through on the bike and help bridge up closer to the leaders.

"And, like always, it will come down to how much of a buffer they have and how well I can run.

"The test is always that second time around the Mount base track.

"If I can run 1hr 15min for the Half then I should have a good chance."

Auckland's Michael Poole is also back to defend his title.

This Tauranga-born teenager surprised everyone - including himself - in becoming the youngest-ever winner of the event last year.

Brown knows James Bowstead well, as they are regular training partners.

The Glenbrook athlete was unlucky not to claim the title last year, when he was run down going on to the Mount for the final time.

Kieran Doe is another leading contender.

The Auckland athlete, who was the champion in 2008, went on to make a name for himself the same year when he won Ironman Canada in a race record of 8hr 32min 44sec.

A mixture of illness and injury has thwarted his progress but he showed some good form with a third placing at Ironman NZ, and winning his first 70.3 event at Calgary.

Meanwhile, an equally competitive women's field square off for the title.

One of the favoured women, Caroline Steffen, the ITU World Long Distance Champion who was second last year, has withdrawn from the event.

Steffen was exhausted following travel immediately after winning the Asia Pacific 70.3 title.

The three-time champion at Tauranga, Australia's Rebekah Keat, now assumes the mantle of pre-race favourite.

She is a former Ironman Australia champion and was third last year.

Leading the Kiwi contingent is triathlon legend Jo Lawn.

She is a seven-time winner of Ironman New Zealand and a two-time winner at Mt Maunganui.

Others include top-ranking Australian Nicole Ward, Tauranga's Janine Simpson and former Kiwi star Anna Cleaver, who is now based across the Tasman and is making a return to the sport.

The men's and women's titles will be hotly contested and that is something that has been synonymous with the Port of Tauranga Half over the past 22 years.

"The quality of the domestic and international field that turns out every year for this event is a sign of how well regarded it is," said event manager Janette Blyth.

"It is the 22nd year of the event but also the 20th year that the Port of Tauranga has been on board as the main sponsor.

"We are looking forward to celebrating that, and I am sure the elite field will put on a great show for everyone on holiday and show what top-end triathlon is all about."

peter.thornton@sportsinc.co.nz