By CHRIS RATTUE



AUCKLAND


Coach:

Wayne Pivac (2nd season)



Assistant:

Grant Fox



Captain:

Paul Thomson

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Last season:

1st (won 8, lost 1; semi-final: beat North Harbour 38 - 30; final: beat Wellington 24 - 18).



Squad:


Backs: Adrian Cashmore, Orene Ai'i, Malili Muliaina, Taunaholo Taufahema, Iliesa Tanivula, Craig Innes, Amasio Valence, Carlos Spencer, Ben Meyer, Steve Devine



Forwards: Xavier Rush, Mark Carter, Stephen Bates, Finau Maka, Andrew Blowers, Dylan Mika, Charles


Riechelmann, Leo Lafaiali'i, Tom Curtis, Tonga Lea'aetoa, Nick White, Paul Thomson, Keven Mealamu, James Christian.



All Blacks: Doug Howlett; Craig Dowd.



Chances:


The champions have discarded lock Robin Brooke, hooker Paul Mitchell, midfield back Eroni Clarke and some fringe players while Ofisa Tonu'u has gone offshore, Caleb Ralph escaped to Canterbury and Michael Jones has retired. The new faces include props White and Lea'aetoa, lock Curtis and flanker Bates, who was in last year's champion national under-19 side, along with outside back Muliaina. The key has to be the mercurial Spencer who, armed with a new contract, has already hit a career crossroad at the tender age of 24. But there's a touch of inexperience in this squad.



CANTERBURY


Coach:

Robbie Deans (4th season)



Assistant:

Steve Hansen



Captain:

Todd Blackadder / Daryl Gibson



Last season:

5th (5 wins, 4 losses)



Squad:


Backs: Ben Blair, Joe Maddock, Afato So'oalo, Marika Vunibaka, Caleb Ralph, Nathan Mauger, Daryl Gibson, Mark Mayerhofler, Derek Maisey, Billy Fulton, Ben Hurst



Forwards: Sam Broomhall, Dallas Seymour, Richard McCaw, Johnny Leo'o, Matt Mustchin, Chris Jack, Steve Lancaster, Marty Veale, Tim Stokes, Dave Hewett, Con Barrell, Matt Sexton, Sean Cuttance.



All Blacks: Leon MacDonald, Mark Robinson, Andrew Mehrtens, Justin Marshall; Scott Robertson, Reuben


Thorne, Todd Blackadder, Norm Maxwell, Greg Somerville, Mark Hammett.



Chances:


Canterbury are hot favourites with their All Blacks backed up by class players such as Gibson, lethal runners So'oalo and Vunibaka, some of the country's top young talent, including fullback Blair and lock Jack, all under the wily direction of Deans in his last NPC season. The newcomers include Colts flanker McCaw, ex-Harbour halfback Fulton and Auckland back Ralph. The departed include loosies Angus Gardiner and Steve Surridge (overseas), axed halfback Aaron Flynn, No 8 Clark McLeod and wing James Kerr, plus Darryl Lilley


(Taranaki). Test prop Greg Feek (foot injury) will miss early rounds.



COUNTIES MANUKAU


Coach:

Andrew Talaimanu (replaces Mac McCallion)



Assistant:

Henry Maxwell



Captain:

Danny Lee



Last season:

9th (2 wins, 7 losses)



Squad:


Backs: Loki Crichton, Joeli Vidiri, Salesi Moimoi, David Wood, George Leaupepe, Tamaha McDonald, Peter


Epati, Phil Lewis, Blair Feeney, Danny Lee.



Forwards: Dion Kingi, Hare Makiri, Koula Tukino, Glen Marsh, Mark Todd, George Stowers, Kristian Ormsby, Ramon Lindsay, Hona Kingi, Dave Stewart, Alan McLean, John Akurangi, Grant Henson.



Chances:

Counties-Manukau's largely home-grown squad again looks most vulnerable in the tight


five. There is some promise - lock Ormsby showed out with big tackling displays for the victorious New Zealand under-21 side who also included utility Stowers. The Steelers have secured prop Hona Kingi, who commuted from South Auckland to the Kumeu club last season, much to North Harbour's disappointment. They


need big seasons from the likes of Tukino and Leaupepe. But it looks a tough year for the Lomu-less Steelers, whose losses also include veteran lock Jim Coe and injured prop Lee Lidgard.



NORTH HARBOUR


Coach:

Wayne Shelford (3rd season)



Assistant:

Allan Pollock



Captain:

Troy Flavell / Mark Robinson



Last season:

4th (won 5, drew 1, lost 3; semi-final: lost to Auckland 30 - 38)



Squad:


Backs: Jeremy Coulter, Eric Rush, Aisea Tuilevu, Karl Te Nana, Scott Adams, Rua Tipoki, Walter Little, Marc Ellis, Willie Walker, Mark Robinson, John Beckett.



Forwards: Blair Urlich, Monaco Tonga, Matua Parkinson, Craig Newby, Eddie Rawiri, Phil Weedon, Matt Lord,


Jeff Fahrensohn, Slade McFarland, Tony Woodcock, Rod Moore, Dean Thompson, Ace Tiatia, Russell King.



All Blacks: Troy Flavell, Ron Cribb.



Chances:


North Harbour have lost Frano Botica's leadership and goalkicking, and veterans Glen Osborne and Ian Jones have departed these shores. There's an experimental look with McFarland at prop and Ellis at first five-eighths. The side includes Aussie prop Moore, highly-rated national Colts prop Woodcock, Wellington hooker Tiatia, utility Lord (who was loaned to Thames Valley in 1997/98), lanky Silverdale flanker Rawiri, former Wellington fullback Coulter, new halfback Beckett and centre Adams, who has returned to the area from Otago. Should be hunting a top four spot.



NORTHLAND


Coach:

Bryce Woodward (2nd season)



Assistant:

Don Stevenson



Captain:

Glenn Taylor



Last season:

6th (4 wins, 5 losses)



Squad:


Backs: Clint Going, Hayden Taylor, Fero Lasagavibau, Matthew Miller, Norm Berryman, Brad Miller, Jason Hita,


Roly Verran, Robbie Johnson, Jason Shoemark, Jared Going, Tony Monaghan, Sam Pinder, Joggie Viljoen.



Forwards: Mathew Weber, Samiu Vahafolau, Brett Waaka, Justin Collins, Vula Maimuri, Glenn Taylor, Brandon Jackson, Geoff Crawford, Wayne Rogers, Mike Storey, Tim Knight, Joe Veitayaki, Bobby Larkins, Joe Ross, Jason Hammond.



Chances:

Northland's only loss at home last year was an unlucky one to Otago, marking them down as the over-achievers of the 1999 season. It will be much tougher this year with the big provinces having their All Blacks back for most matches. Key prop Nick White has gone to Auckland and others such as Allen Tubbs are unavailable. They've picked up impressive young No 8 eight Vahafolau (unless Auckland cancel the loan agreement) who played for the Highlanders, Sydney club wing Matt Miller, and former Auckland journeyman


forward Jackson. They'll do well just matching last year's effort.



OTAGO


Coach:

Kevin Gloag (2nd season)



Assistant:

Phil Young



Captain:

Kelvin Middleton



Last year:

7th (4 wins, 1 draw, 4 losses)



Squad:


Backs: Hayden Reid, James Jowsey, Brendan Laney, Romi Ropati, Roy Hawker, Mathew Priscott, Seilala Mapusua, Charles Hore, David Gibson, Donovan Hall



Forwards: Paul Miller, Josh Blackie, John Willis, Kelvin Middleton, Luke Andrews, John Blaikie, Simon Maling, Keith Cameron, Carl Hayman, Joe McDonnell, Tom Willis, Andrew Hore.



All Blacks: Pita Alatini, Tony Brown, Byron Kelleher; Josh Kronfeld, Taine Randell, Kees Meeuws, Carl Hoeft,


Anton Oliver.



Chances:


Jeff Wilson is retired, three-quarters Jeremy Stanley, Dan Parkinson and Matt Carrington, plus loosie Duncan Blaikie, are out for the season, while Ropati will miss early rounds. But any side boasting the All


Blacks that Otago have must be contenders. The long-time locking partnership of John Blaikie and Brendon Timmins is broken, with Timmins on loan to Southland along with transferred No 8 Matt O'Connell. France-bound Isitolo Maka was unwanted. Southlander Miller makes his Otago debut, along with NZ Colts inside-back


Mapusua. It is undecided if Randell will regain the captaincy.



SOUTHLAND


Coach:

Leicester Rutledge (replaces Bob Telfer)



Assistant:

Mark Seymour



Captain:

Davin Heaps



Last season:

10th (1 draw, 8 losses)




Squad:


Backs: Aaron Kimura, Anthony Lafaiali'i, Pailate Fili, Alex Telea, Graeme Bond, Joe Naufahu, Faolua Muliaina, Mal Arnold, David Hill, Brett McCormack, Jason Harrison, Jimmy Cowan.



Forwards: Matt O'Connell, Brendon Pascoe, Andrew Rainsford, Des Tuiavii, Craig Glendinning, Brendon Timmins, Mark Tinnock, Steve Jackson, Aaron Dempsey, Clarke Dermody, Simon Kerr, Davin Heaps, Jason Rutledge.



Chances:


Southland lost classy No 8 Paul Miller to Otago, but have Wellington wing Alex Telea, Canterbury inside back Joe Naufahu, and Otago lock Brendon Timmins on loan, and have transferred loose forwards Craig Glendinning (Counties) and Mat O'Connell (Otago), plus first five-eighths Mal Arnold (Canterbury) and David Hill (Marlborough). And they have lured midfield back Graeme Bond and former Wellington loose forward Des Tuiavii from the Brumbies. The side includes Jason Rutledge, the son of new coach and former test loose forward Leicester Rutledge. Could snatch a couple of wins.



TARANAKI


Coach:

Colin Cooper (2nd season)



Assistant:

Kieran Crowley



Captain:

Andy Slater



Last season:

8th (3 wins, 6 losses)



Squad:


Backs: Daryl Lilley, Lome Fa'atau, Neil Brew, Faapulou Soolefai, Kerry Eynon, Mepi Faoagali, Craig Taylor, Mark Urwin, Brendan Haami, Richard Jarman.



Forwards: Neil Crowley, Darryl Fale, Campbell Feather, Brent Thompson, Keith Robinson, Paul Tito, Andy Slater, Tony Penn, Tama Tuirirangi, Gordon Slater, Shane McDonald, Daniel Smith.



Chances:

Taranaki are without loosie Kevin Barrett (Europe), first five-eighths Jamie Cameron, midfield back Dean Magon (retired), wing Filipo Toala (France) and hooker Dawson Tamati (ankle surgery). But hooker McDonald is back from overseas, while recruits include Thames Valley lock Robinson and Hurricanes flanker Thompson from Manawatu. First- five Taylor, from the Waikato development side, is a Taranaki native who played national under-19s and schoolboys in the early 1990s and 39 games for Manawatu. Lilley returns from Canterbury and Wellington wing Fa'atau is on loan. Mid-table.



WAIKATO


Coach:

Kiwi Searancke (2nd season)



Assistant:

Ian Foster



Captain:

Deon Muir



Last season:

2nd (6 wins, 1 draw, 2 losses; semi-final: lost Wellington 17 - 38)



Squad:


Backs: Todd Miller, Grant McQuoid, Damian Karauna, Roger Randle, Bruce Reihana, Scott McLeod, Keith Lowen, Mark Ranby, Glen Jackson, Ben Willis, Rhys Duggan.



Forwards: Deon Muir, Jono Gibbes, Nick Holten, Scott Couch, Marty Holah, Royce Willis, Chresten Davis, Tony


Petero, Deacon Manu, David Briggs, Paul Martin, Greg Smith, Guy Coleman.



Chances:


Matthew Cooper is retired and Mark Cooksley has been axed but there is a familiar look to a Waikato lineup


shooting for a fourth straight semi-final appearance. The new look is in the loose forwards where Gibbes, a national Colt in 1997/98, and Couch, who has played for New Zealand Universities, are introduced. Waikato have


become a team of rejected All Blacks or contenders. Some, particularly McLeod, are expected to head overseas. Others such as World Cup squad members Willis, Reihana and Duggan should have big points to prove. Definite top-four prospects.



WELLINGTON


Coach:

Dave Rennie (replaces Graham Mourie)



Technical adviser:

Graham Mourie



Captain:

Norm Hewitt



Last season:

3rd (won 6, lost 3; semi-final: beat Waikato 38 - 17; final: lost to Auckland 18 - 24)



Squad:


Backs: Shannon Paku, Colin Sullivan, Brad Fleming, Elvis Seveali'i, Jason O'Halloran, Norm Broughton, Paul


Steinmetz, Tanner Vili, David Holwell, Riki Flutey, Jason Spice



Forwards: Filo Tiatia, Semo Sititi, Rodney So'oialo, Kupu Vanisi, Jerry Collins, Inoke Afeaki, Opeta Palepoi, Andrew Gallagher, Dion Waller, Morne van der Merwe, Kevin Yates, Mike Edwards, Norm Hewitt, Shane Carter.



All Blacks: Christian Cullen, Tana Umaga, Jonah Lomu, Alama Ieremia.



Wellington have snared 27-year-old prop Morne van der Merwe from the Stormers, although the former Shark played a secondary role in a pack which had test props Visagie, Kempson and van der Linde. Lock Gallagher returns from Japan, while tighthead prop Lealamanua, who had two non-NPC games in 1998, and lock Palepoi


were in Samoa's Pacific Rim side. The Lions boast top loose forward prospects Collins, in his second season, and fellow national Colt So'oialo. With damaging forwards Afeaki and Tiatia, clever inside backs and THAT test back four, expect more thrills and spills and, maybe, even a title.