North Harbour makes a trip into the unknown with its Hibiscus women's team tomorrow, back in the NPC for the first time since 2005.

The newly named Farah Palmer Cup kicks off comprising nine teams, with Hawke's Bay dropping out from the 2015 mix, after going 0-6, and Harbour Hibiscus making the step up.

North Harbour's promotion has been brewing for the last two seasons, and no doubt New Zealand Rugby, which sees the wider Auckland region as an area of strategic importance, is pleased to see a long-overdue women's rep side out of the union, given the growing popularity of rugby among schoolgirls in North Harbour.

"We talked to NZ Rugby to say we were ready for NPC after building a programme and making the sevens nationals this summer," says Hibiscus coach and former North Harbour No 8 Bill Wigglesworth.


The Hibiscus are primarily chosen from two clubs, East Coast Bays and Glenfield. The former was competitive in the Auckland premier women's grade this season, while Glenfield took out the Auckland development competition.

It is only in the last two seasons that the North Harbour union has targeted significant time, resources and emphasis into the women's game, and this should act as a good springboard.

"Being in the Farah Palmer Cup is hopefully going to inspire more women in our province to give rugby a go," says Wigglesworth, who coached the East Coast Bays women in 2015 and the women's sevens rep side for the last two years.

"We're excited. This is a starting point, really. The next 6-7 weeks will be great, but we can certainly lay a foundation around the way we play and the way the team presents itself. It will be interesting to see how it pans out."

He says it is difficult to declare a team goal when second five and Black Fern Chelsea Alley is the sole player to have appeared in this competition. He is more concerned about them playing a good style of rugby.

The semifinals would be nice, but there is stern competition in the form of perennial champions Auckland Storm, 2015 runners-up Wellington, and 2015 semifinalists Counties Manukau Heat and Waikato, not to mention a Canterbury squad disappointed at missing the top four last year.

The Hibiscus will, however, take heart from winning last weekend's invitational provincial tournament at QBE Stadium.

"That gave us some confidence. Obviously the sides we played aren't going to be at NPC level, but we demonstrated some of our structures around attack and defence," says Wigglesworth.

He has no injuries to contend with, and has named Alley and No 8 Jemma Palmer as co-captains. Black Ferns lock/blindside flanker Charmaine Smith will be a key player in the pack too.

"They'll bring some experience, so we will lean on them a bit, but everyone is expected to step up and rise to the challenge. It's going to take more than two players to have a successful campaign."

Watch out for multi-talented allrounder and Glenfield College student Florida Fatanitavake, one of three schoolgirls in the squad. She will play at centre or wing, having already been identified through the sevens programme, and has pace and skill.

Another code-hopper is Stacey Martin from netball, who will slot in at halfback. Wigglesworth expects her to make a big impression, with her nous, speed and pass.

"We've got some athletic, well-prepared players in our group who have come out of the sevens programme, but that is reflective of the player base. They are role models for the younger ones."

The Hibiscus play the Bay of Plenty Volcanix tomorrow in Rotorua, and Wigglesworth admits to knowing little about what to expect from a side which won just one game in 2015 to place seventh.

Brad Fleming is an assistant coach of the Volcanix, and they have some wonderful names in their squad. Try Autumn-Rain Stephens, Sapphire Tapsell and Mystery McLean-Kora.

Of interest among the teams will be what the re-entry of the New Zealand Sevens girls, once their Olympic commitments are done, will have on the competition. One would think it will be an added attraction.

So the Auckland Storm, again coached by Dean Bickerton, JP Fa'amausili and former Manu Samoa No 10 Tanner Vili, will be the hottest of hot favourites. They are laden with Black Ferns and their hooker Fiao'o Fa'amausili has played a record 89 times for the union since her 1999 debut, the inaugural year of the women's NPC. Tyla Nathan-Wong will reintegrate into 15s after a long hiatus immersed in sevens.

The Counties Manukau Heat, coached by former Black Ferns Davida White, and Josh Levi, will push hard for the playoffs and perhaps even the final, with players of the ilk of Rawinia Everitt, Victoria Subritzsky-Nafatali, Hazel Tubic, and the speedy Renee Wickliffe and Portia Woodman.

Canterbury, who have the bye on opening weekend, will be fiercely determined to return to the playoffs, and will lean on 2015 World Rugby women's player of the year Kendra Cocksedge, equally adept at halfback or first five.

The Hibiscus-Volcanix game kicks off at 2pm from the Rotorua International Stadium, while the other three clashes - Auckland v Wellington, Manawatu v Otago, Waikato v Counties Manukau - all kick off at midday.

Farah Palmer herself, three-time RWC champion, will be around the traps, and will be at Palmerston North's Central Energy Trust Arena tomorrow to watch two of her old teams get it on. The Auckland v Wellington replay of the 2015 final will be at Colin Maiden Park, home of the Auckland University Rugby Club.

Five regular season games will be televised as Mitre 10 Cup curtainraisers, including the September 10 Hibiscus v Manawatu clash at QBE Stadium. East Coast Bays' home base of Windsor Park will be used for two of the Hibiscus home games.

There will not, however, be a full round, as in 2015, with six games each before the semifinals on September 24 and final on October 1.