The competition will be keeping a close eye on the west Auckland clubs as the North Harbour premier club rugby season kicks off tomorrow.
Massey are the defending champions and gunning for a fourth title in five years, and third straight, despite losing a plethora of players and starting a rebuilding phase. Kumeu are back as a premier side in their own right after six seasons under the Western Pioneers umbrella.
Massey host close rivals North Shore at Moire Park. This fixture has seen some titanic recent battles in finals and regular season, and Shore are this year coached by former North Harbour wing Robert Todd, assisted by, among others, former North Harbour threequarter and coach Allan Pollock.
Massey won the 2016 ASB Cup with a dropped goal by Niko Ratumaitavuki in extra time over Takapuna, but have had a slow start to 2017 due to injuries, retirements and rep duties. Chris Vui is at UK club Worcester, Jerome Niumata is in South Africa, Tevita Li and Adrian Smith are at the Highlanders, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti is at the Blues, while Matt Vaega, Hapakuki Moala-Liava'a and Connor Collett will play for the Blues A against the Hurricanes at around the same time as the kickoff at Moire Park. Veteran halfback Chris Smylie, however, has been released by the Hurricanes, though is nursing a hamstring injury. Regular 2016 halfback Nalu Tuigamala has retired, and loose forward Kima Iosua is taking a year out of the game.
There is a core group of senior players still at Massey, including lock and captain Ben Svenson, No 8 Dylan Lam, prop Salesi Ma'afu, and backs Rhema Sagote, Tito Sufia and Ratumaitavuki. Last season's MAGS First XV halfback Salyn Tonu'u, son of former All Black Ofisa Tonu'u, will start tomorrow, while there is the usual conveyor belt of talent out of Massey High School in the form of loose forward Nathan Va'atausili, who will start at openside against Shore, and the youngest of the Pisi boys, Mac, who will come off the bench to play either centre or fullback.
"We've had a highish turnover," says coach Jarrod Framhein. We're very much in the first stage of a rebuilding process at Massey. We've got eight debutants tomorrow versus Shore.
"For the senior core group and myself, the motivation is three in a row. We start the rebuild process, but we start with some pretty good battle."
He expects the 10-team competition to be fairly even in 2017.
"Most have recruited and retained well. For me, Northcote, Takapuna and East Coast Bays are definitely the front-runners and favourites. Ourselves and Shore will be knocking about there at the end of the season," he says.
The rest of the clubs may smile about that assessment from the defending champs, but there is an even look to the landscape, and plenty to play for with new North Harbour coach Tom Coventry sure to be an interested spectator.
Former North Harbour, Manawatu and Takapuna club prop Adrian Donald takes the coaching reins at Kumeu, and says the excitement is building in the Kumeu community.
"It's something the club has dreamed about for the last seven years. The Pioneers were successful and had some good coaches and good talent in that period. But Kumeu junior rugby is in an outstanding position, with 30-odd teams. Now it's our challenge to put a competitive side out there in the premier environment," says Donald.
He knows how to win as a player - sharing Ranfurly Shield glory with North Harbour and eight premier crowns with Takapuna - before guiding Takapuna to three semifinals as a coach.
So he has higher goals than just to make up the numbers or win the Country Cup (played between Mahurangi, Silverdale, Kumeu and Helensville).
"Our aspiration is to make the top four. We'd be disappointed if we didn't do that, but we've got to be patient and disciplined," says Donald. It will be imperative to avoid wholesale injury concerns, which would erode the shallow depth, but he has promoted some talent from the 2016 Kumeu Under 21s, who won the championship. The pack will be built around the likes of loose forward Dylan Masters. Front foot ball will allow some X-factor outside backs to flourish.
Kumeu will host Marist tomorrow at Riverhead Domain, the latter seeking to bounce back from some lean seasons.
In tomorrow's other fixtures (all 2.45pm kickoffs) for the Buck Shelford Shield first round, Silverdale host East Coast Bays, again coached by former North Harbour utility back Mark Beale, while Mahurangi welcome Takapuna. The latter, runners-up in 2016, hold the Les Pearce Memorial Shield, up for grabs in home competition games. Northcote, again with former Waikato and Auckland No 10 Brett Craies at the tiller, clash with Glenfield, who have lost Michael Little to Japan. Matt McGahan, who was a Pioneers player, is also off to Japan.
The blue card initiative, giving referees the authority to 'blue card' any players they suspect have concussion, will be in place.
The second round starts on May 6 with finals day slated for July 22.
The premier two competition features 12 teams, including Helensville, who have opted to start at this level after the Pioneers' split, and Navy.