Four seasoned newcomers highlight the naming of the 30-man Waikato squad for the upcoming 2016 Mitre 10 Cup season.
Hurricanes midfield back Willis Halaholo, former North Harbour and Blues Development No 8 Jordan Manihera, former Canterbury and Crusaders utility back Nathaniel Apa, and Samoan international halfback Pele Cowley have all played plenty of first-class rugby.
Other first year Waikato players are hooker Steven Misa, prop Sefo Kautai, lock/loose forward Leva Fifita, midfield back Tevita Taufui, and wings Iliesa Ratuva Tavuyara and Sevu Reece.
Seven of them have made their Waikato debuts during pre-season Ranfurly Shield fixtures with Manihera, Halaholo and Fifita the only three in the squad who remain uncapped.
Waikato will also welcome back their 10 Super Rugby players, Hurricanes Loni Uhila and Willis Halaholo, Chiefs Atu Moli, James Tucker, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Stephen Donald, Damian McKenzie, Anton Lienert-Brown and Shaun Stevenson, and Jordan Trainor from the Blues. The availability of Kerr-Barlow and McKenzie will depend on their potential All Blacks commitments.
The return of halfback Isaac Boss and five eighth Sam Christie from playing stints in Europe will add experience to the backline, while up front prop Latu Talakai and lock Brian Alainu'uese are both welcome additions after missing the last two seasons.
Hooker Hame Faiva and loose forwards Adam Burn and Whetu Douglas are now seasoned players at Mitre 10 Cup level, with several years of experience under their belts, while lock Jacob Skeen, loose forward Mitch Jacobson and halfback Harrison Levien have all impressed since breaking into the squad over the past two seasons.
Waikato head coach Sean Botherway is happy with the squad he has been able to name and the players and coaching staff have been ramping up preparations through an extended Ranfurly Shield pre-season.
"The squad is well balanced and heavier in experience than previous years. Our Super Rugby players have all had very good seasons and we look forward to them returning in the coming weeks," Botherway said.
"Ranfurly Shield rugby has given our early season work plenty of substance and excitement, and we are looking forward to the remainder of our pre-season as we build up to what will be a very competitive Mitre 10 Cup campaign."
Waikato's 2016 Mitre 10 Cup season kicks off in Blenheim against Tasman on Sunday August 21, after a Ranfurly Shield challenge this Saturday (August 6) against Wanganui and a pre-season hit out against Taranaki on Friday August 12. The first home game of the Mitre 10 Cup is against North Harbour on Saturday August 27.
Waikato beat neighbours King Country 55-0 in Matamata on Saturday in a Ranfurly Shield defence.
2016 Waikato Mitre 10 Cup squad:
Loni Uhila (17) Hamilton Marist
Latu Talakai (22) Fraser Tech
Hame Faiva (23) University
Steven Misa (1) Hamilton Marist
Atu Moli (7) University
Tau Koloamatangi (7) University
Sefo Kautai (1) Hamilton Marist
James Tucker (9) Hamilton Marist
Brian Alainu'uese (9) University
Jacob Skeen (16) University
Leva Fifita (*) Hamilton Old Boys
Whetu Douglas (25) University
Mitch Jacobson (7) Hautapu
Adam Burn (27) Hamilton Old Boys
Jordan Manihera (*) Hamilton Old Boys
Tawera Kerr-Barlow (40) Hautapu
Harrison Levien (6) Hamilton Marist
Pele Cowley (1) Hamilton Old Boys
Isaac Boss (53) (Southern United)
Damian McKenzie (20) University
Stephen Donald (59) University
Sam Christie (43) Fraser Tech
Willis Halaholo (*)
Tevita Taufui (2) Melville
Nathaniel Apa (1) Fraser Tech
Anton Lienert-Brown (19) University
Iliesa Ratuva Tavuyara (2) Hamilton Old Boys
Sevu Reece (2) Melville
Shaun Stevenson (10) Hamilton Old Boys
Jordan Trainor (2) Fraser Tech
Wider training/injury cover
Murray Iti (7) Otorohanga
Jake Ale (1) Melville
() = caps for Waikato
* = uncapped
(caps as of August 1 after King Country Ranfurly Shield match)