The New Zealand Universities rugby side will play Poverty Bay on Monday night in a short, internal tour.

A rash of late defections and injuries, which has meant seven changes from their original 22, and a truncated fixture list, will not deter them from their Varsity rugby ideals of open play, nor will it prevent them from observing the usual NZU traditions, including the process for initiating new players after the match.

The NZU is a proven pathway for players, on the fringes of professional rugby, to act as a springboard to provincial and Super Rugby.

Last season, Otago threequarter Matt Faddes toured Japan with the NZU, where two of the three matches were won, and made quite the impression.


"Matt Faddes is someone we can put up and say, 'Look where he was, in and out of the ITM Cup.' He went away on tour, got his confidence up, brought that back to his club and province and now he's a genuine starter for the Highlanders. It can be done," says NZU coach and former NZU, Highlanders and Otago lock Brendon Timmins.

Flanker Tom Sanders, an original selection in 2015, is now with the Chiefs. Ere Enari, another from the 2015 tour, has just been called into the New Zealand Under 20s.

Auckland front-rower Marcel Renata, sadly a late defection via injury, did so well on the Japan tour last year that he was in the Maori All Blacks and wider Auckland squad within months.

"Carl Hoeft, a mate of mine (and Maori scrum coach) gave me a call and asked how he went. He took that on board and chose to pick him. You just don't know what it can do for your career if you front for us," says Timmins, who is again assisted by Simon Forrest.

Others such as Waikato hooker Hame Faiva and Otago wing Gavin Stark both kicked on to feature for their provinces in 2015. Others were already in the semi-professional mix.

James Waddel and Broc Hooper are in Auckland but not playing for University, so are ineligible.

Timmins, despite all the late hurdles, has been able to assemble a solid-looking squad which will fully test a Poverty Bay outfit that struggled to 11th in the 2015 Heartland Championship.
There is Super Rugby (Massey second five Hamish Northcott of the 2015 Blues) and former New Zealand Under 20 experience (Otago flanker Dillon Hunt).

There would have been more: Otago and 2015 NZ 20s first five Fletcher Smith has a busy study workload, so pulled out, as did 2014-15 NZ 20s prop Tau Koloamatangi of Waikato.

Two of the squad replacements - props Angus Williams (Otago) and Robin Praat (Massey) - toured Japan in 2015.

Halfback Marius Tonu'u, a late replacement for Old Boys-University's Nick Kavanagh, is a John Drake Memorial scholar from Auckland University.

The captain is third year NZU halfback Jack Stratton, of Lincoln University. He is co-captain of his club and was back-up to Mitchell Drummond in the Canterbury ITM Cup squad.

There is a good spread of players through the seven university sides throughout the country. Old Boys-University, the defending Jubilee Cup champion in the capital, is 7-0 in the Swindale Shield and has three in this NZU squad.

The University club in Otago, also 2015 champion, has two, while Christchurch champion Lincoln has four. Auckland and Waikato University were runners-up in 2015, proving that Varsity rugby is still strong throughout the nation.

"This is a quality team. It might be band-aided, but it's got some pretty good horsepower," declares Timmins. "The hardest thing for us has been the late notice of putting it all together."

The original plan was for Kanto from Japan to tour as part of the reciprocal arrangement between NZU and Japanese rugby. That inbound tour will now take place in 2017, concurrent with the Lions tour, as Kanto have struck some financial difficulty.

"Thankfully, Poverty Bay have given us the opportunity to play this game and for that we are very grateful," Timmins says. It will be a bonafide first-class fixture, with both teams fielding no more than 22 in their squads. And there will some added motivation for NZU.
"This one's going to be unique. We can reconnect with Derek Lardelli, who gifted the NZU haka to us last year. We can get his support and guidance for the haka and this team. But he's also putting up a trophy that will go on the line in this match," says Timmins.

There was some hope that East Coast would be able to host an NZU fixture, but that game could not get off the ground, so the tour will remain a one-match programme.
"One game's better than none. We're going into this with no real idea other than that they'll be very passionate and we'll play what's in front of us with that Varsity mindset of our attack zone being 100m long and 70m wide. We'll express ourselves," says Timmins.

He is grateful to the university clubs for releasing the players, with the NZU assembling in Napier tomorrow, thus missing one club round, and then bussing to Gisborne.

There will be time for perhaps two trainings to get systems in place before Monday's 6.30pm kickoff at Rugby Park.

They disperse on Tuesday.

Poverty Bay, under the coaching of Mutu Ngarimu, was working with a 40-man training squad, which included seasoned captain and lock Murry Hewson and centurion Sione Ngatu.

The NZU side may be ignored by most of the mainstream rugby media, but the Rugby Almanack records the details of the side as high as page 64 of the 2016 edition, a fitting place for a team with a rich history that has contributed so much to New Zealand rugby.

NZ Universities squad to play Poverty Bay: Jason Robertson (Waikato), Sam Healy (Massey), Te Wehi Wright (Waikato), Cameron Watkins (Canterbury), Shae Tucker (Otago), Harrison Groundwater (Lincoln), Hamish Northcott (Massey), Sam Malcolm (Massey), Marius Tonu'u (Auckland), Jack Stratton (Lincoln, c), Kirk Tufuga (Massey), Dillon Hunt (Otago), Sinclair Dominikovich-Murray (Auckland), Ian Kennedy (Old Boys-University, Wellington), Sam Godwin (Canterbury), Will Mangos (Old Boys-University) Jack Powell (Lincoln), Angus Williams (Otago), Robin Praat (Massey), Finnbarr Kerr-Newell (Old Boys-University), Nick Grogan (Massey), Nick Werahiko (Lincoln)