Auckland fans will be expectant after a disastrous 2015 Jock Hobbs Memorial national Under 19 tournament.
An underpowered Auckland A team limped home in seventh position while the B side placed 16th, dead last.
But looking at the respective strengths of the A and B squads for the 2016 tournament, starting tomorrow in Taupo, there is reason for optimism at what the country's largest union might produce. New Zealand Rugby will be watching closely, having identified the region as a key strategic area with its large numbers.
Auckland A captain will be loose forward Dalton Papali'i, sparingly used by New Zealand in the World Rugby Under 20 Championship in June. The 2015 St Kentigern College First XV skipper is a quality footballer and leader.
Auckland A have a compelling mix of talent out of either Premier or Under 21 club grades, with most having featured prominently in First XV rugby last year. Some gained wider exposure via SKY's schools coverage.
Former De La Salle lock Ben Sau has completed his comeback from shoulder surgery and effectively replaces John Akuola, who broke his leg. Out of the 2015 NZ Schools are Papali'i, lock Sam Slade, first five Wiseguy Faiane, and wing TJ Vaega, while from the NZ Barbarians Schools come lock Jacob Pierce, fullback/wing Freedom Vaha'akolo and lock Isitolo Maka. Watch too for centre Loketi Manu and wing Wesley Tameifuna.
"We're certainly in a better place than we were last year. The union have done a great job in retaining secondary school talent from 2015. One of our biggest issues was just trying to keep talent in the area," says Auckland A coach Andrew Hewetson.
Auckland A topped the Blues seedings after defeating North Harbour 22-17, meaning they will play the second ranked Chiefs union Taranaki in a must-win opener tomorrow at Owen Delany Park.
"She's sudden death footy. We learned that last year. Lose that first game and the best you can come is fifth. So we are not looking past Thursday at all," he says. That said, Hewetson knows if they stay injury-free and play to their potential, they can give the Premiership a good shake.
Along with Auckland A, the big guns will be 2014 Premiership champions Wellington, 2015 champions Canterbury, and Waikato. Canterbury have some fringe Mitre 10 Cup talent such as the brilliant first five/fullback Josh McKay, and some sharp outside backs such as Braydon Ennor, Raymond Nu'u and Will Jordan mixed with 2015 NZ Schools forwards Brodie McAlister and Tom Christie.
Wellington will give the Premiership a shake, as it were, with young men such as Alex Fidow, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Asafo Aumua and Isaia Walker-Leawere dropping down from the Lions Mitre 10 Cup squad.
Waikato have loose forward Luke Jacobson back from 2015, but watch for prop Ryan Coxon, hookers Luke Dewar and Samisoni Taukei'aho, locks Sam Caird, Ben Morgan and Conrad Heath, first five Matt Lansdown and fullback Sam Toa.
Auckland B have qualified for the Premiership, showing there is more depth in 2016. Pita Alatini is part of the coaching team, and they have talent like hooker Awanui Morris, a John Drake scholarship winner from the Auckland University Rugby Club, and midfielder Darren Kellett junior.
North Harbour, who were a creditable sixth in 2015, will contest the second tier Michael Jones Trophy, and have some useful talent such as 2015 skipper Dylan Lam, already a senior rep, and halves Lewis Gjaltema and Jack Bergin. Geoff Alley and John McKittrick are among an experienced management team.
North Harbour open with Bay of Plenty in the first televised game from 1.40pm tomorrow.
Counties Manukau are also contesting the Michael Jones Trophy and can emulate the feats of the class of 2015, who took the Championship title on the back of some hot scoring from 2016 Steeler Jonathan Taumateine. Steelers five-eighths Orbyn Leger has been released to join the squad for tournament, though loose forward Viliami Taulani will remain with the Steelers.
Counties Manukau will face Northland tomorrow.
Match days are tomorrow, Sunday and Wednesday, an intense week which includes seminars on different areas of player development and professional rugby life. Owen Delany Park will be crawling with Super Rugby coaches, Mitre 10 coaches, scouts from other codes, and just a general assortment of rugby people.
As a snapshot, the 2015 Graham Mourie Cup final, won 41-35 in fine style by Canterbury over Waikato, included players such as Jordie Barrett, Caleb Makene and Sean Paranihi, while Waikato fielded Sefo Kautai, Jordan Trainor and Luke Jacobson. All have gone on to play NZ Under 20s or Mitre 10 Cup. Even Rieko Ioane, who is still eligible, had three outings for Auckland A last year.
The tournament MVP will take the DJ Graham Award, won in 2014 by Auckland's Mitch Karpik.
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