It's Championship semifinals or bust for North Harbour.

But third year coach Steve Jackson believes he has the squad to do it, despite budget restrictions meaning he cannot fully contract more than 29 players, two of whom are the long-term injured midfielders Pita Ahki and Rene Ranger.

"We definitely believe that we can make the semis. It was disappointing the last two years that we couldn't make it, missing out by a point here and there," says Jackson, whose side placed fifth in the Championship in 2014-15, with three wins in each season.

Now is the time to up the ante, and the early signs are promising. He has a new coaching lieutenant in Daniel Halangahu, who played the last of his 17 games for the union as a No 10 just last year. The former Waratah replaces Alex O'Dowd as backs coach, the latter about to take up a post at England's Nottingham club.


"Dan was the best candidate for the job at the interview process, regardless of whether he played for us last year. We both think the same. I play the bad cop now and then, but he's a good calming voice behind me. He runs all our attack and he's got my full support. I think he'll do a fantastic job," says Jackson. "I joked to him that if anyone goes down, he'll have to jump on the field and play."

Funnier things have happened in rugby.

While there is disappointment that Ahki (shoulder) and Ranger (knee) will not play, that will mean last season's find Michael Little, starved of any Blues action, and Matt Vaega, should have the inside running. There are two youngsters nipping at their heels, though, in the North Shore midfield combination of James Little, still just 18, cousin of Michael, and Daniel Hilton-Jones.

Outside back Marty Swart returns from two years of injury issues. Bryn Gatland, signed from Waikato, and Matt McGahan will battle for the No 10 jersey.

"We understand that Matt can play in other positions. He wants to play 10 and we'll give him an opportunity in pre-season to battle it out with Bryn," says Jackson.

Competition for places looks to be more intense this season.

"Chris Smylie and Bryn Hall will be going hammer and tongs and right across the park. Reputations don't mean anything."

Smylie finished a contract with Treviso in Italy in May and was keen to return to where it all started for the veteran in 2002.

"When Chris touched base earlier in the year and he said he was available, we jumped at the opportunity. He's 34 but he's in the same condition as a 20-year-old. He wants to give back to the union," Jackson says.

The return of No 8 Hapakuki Moala-Liava'a from a shoulder injury suffered in the New Zealand Under 20s' campaign is imminent. Newcomers in the pack include loose forwards Kane Jacobson from Waikato, the elder of the Jacobson loosies, and Josh Tyrell, both of whom have been outstanding in helping Takapuna to its first premier club final in seven years. Former All Blacks Sevens rep Murphy Taramai can play more than one position in the loose trio.

While James Parsons, Bryn Hall and Tevita Li had heavy workloads with the Blues, several others from the franchise saw little to no game time, so should be jumping out of their skins. Into this category fall McGahan, Little, outside backs Matt Duffie and Afa Fa'atau, and lock Gerard Tuioti-Mariner, who will be keen to reproduce his consistent 2015 form for Harbour which won him a Blues' contract.

Missing from the 2015 group include Hayden Triggs and Nafi Tuitavake, both overseas, and Jordan Manihera, who is in Waikato.

Jackson says prolific Massey club wing Mark Telea, who led all premier tryscorers with 12 this season, was unlucky, but he is on the fringes and will train with the squad in pre-season. North Shore No 8 So'otala Fa'aso'o, a 2012 NZ Schools captain, who scored eight tries for his club, missed the cut and was duly snapped up by Counties Manukau.

"You can't take three No 8s. I wish Sooty all the best. As a coach, you want to promote all your players and see them succeed," Jackson says.

He was very impressed with the quality of club rugby this season, and this has made his job easier when contracting players, such as East Coast Bays pro Toketa Fatai, straight out of the premier competition.

"Our club season has been one of the best I've ever seen and that's even when I was a player here. Look at the final, going into extra time."

The level of co-operation between the clubs and rep programme, so evident in 2016, has not always been so smooth in the past at the union.

"Our premier coaches and clubs have been outstanding in adopting the new rules for the second round, and so have our refs," Jackson says.

"The players are a good, hard-working group who have been in good club form and we think they will adapt to the new rules and get on with the job."

Pre-season games are slated for this Friday (Northland), August 5 (Auckland) and August 11 (Hawke's Bay) before North Harbour opens the Mitre 10 Cup with an August 18 Thursday night home crossover fixture against Counties Manukau.

Getting off to a winning start, not Harbour's forte in recent seasons, will be paramount. Of course, there is the added carrot of a round two Ranfurly Shield challenge in Waikato. Two Premiership opponents in the first nine days will be instructive.

Click here for the full squad.