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Club rugby

Auckland Ponsonby haven't got over missing out on a place in the Gallaher Shield final last season.

Winners of the trophy in 2001 and 2002, they were beaten 25-23 by University in a semifinal last year.

And to make matters worse they also relinquished every trophy in their cabinet, including the Alan McEvoy Memorial Shield and the ARU Supporters Club Cup for first and second-round supremacy.

All of them went west to Waitemata.

University lost the final 26-14 to Waitemata.

The new season starts today, and on the evidence of pre-season matches, the same three clubs are again shaping as the strongest contenders for this year's title.

Ponsonby coach Grant Keenan has resurrected the club careers of veterans Ofisa Tonu'u and Jason Chandler.

The blue and blacks will have their regular inside back combination of Kane Hancy and Murray Williams back from duty with the Blues Development XV, and that will create a problem for Keenan as to where he can play Tonu'u, who has been in superb form in the warm-up matches.

Ponsonby have lost Dale Rasmussen, Siaosi Vai'ili and John Rawson to English clubs, and loose forwards Ed Cocker and Herman Bahn to Dunedin.

But brilliant three-quarter Paul Williams has recovered from a compound leg break and will be in action midway through the first round.

Waitemata have lost prop Liva Saena to North Harbour, and hooker Onehunga Matauiau and backs Thomas Toailoa and Lee Stensness have retired.

The biggest problem for Waitemata is losing coach Greg Aldous.

He has been appointed to the Auckland Colts side and has to stand down from the club job, although he will stay for the first two rounds to help the new coach come in.

Waitemata open against the John Foliaki-coached Te Papapa Onehunga, and it will be a good test for the champions.

Former All Black Gary Braid is again in charge of University, and Marist - the other semifinalists last season - have a new coach in Steve McHardy. Otahuhu have retained Barry George.

Suburbs at their home ground in the middle of the Avondale Racecourse could be a dark horse this season.

Coach Shane Howarth, now the Auckland NPC side's assistant coach, will stay with Suburbs for the season, which will be a pivotal one for the West Aucklanders, who just managed to stay clear of the promotion-relegation series last year.

Grammar Carlton looked on the verge of making the finals last season but were inconsistent.

Coached again by Terry Reardon, they open their season against Marist at Liston Park, and that will be a tough start for both sides.

Former Grammar player Adrian Cashmore has returned to New Zealand from his stint in Japan and might again be available for the club.

East Tamaki caused upsets last season and Teachers Eastern are expected to be competitive.

North Harbour

Silverdale coach Charlie McAlister believes the opening hurdle could not be tougher as his side prepares to defend the premier championship.

Silverdale, which have suffered several defections from last year, will take on Massey, one of the Harbour's more consistent sides.

This has been reinforced by one of the major signings for this season, Southland NPC captain and New Zealand Maori lock Steve Jackson.

Winning the Harbour premiership for the first time was a fillip for Silverdale last year. But according to McAlister there will be no benefit from any ongoing euphoria.

He said playing Massey first up would give the team some idea of how they are going to stand.

Several of last year's side, notably hard men in the pack such as Henry Tofelau, Blair Foote and Tim Cowley, have moved on, either to retirement or overseas.

Other key clashes should be Helensville against Marist, and Glenfield, which will have former All Black Walter Little on the coaching staff, against East Coast Bays.

The other three matches seem likely to be a little more one sided. Takapuna, North Shore and Northcote are each heavily favoured in matches respectively against Navy, Kumeu and Mahurangi.

Takapuna will be without former All Black utility forward Blair Larsen but that will be offset by the return of former Crusaders and Highlanders Super 12 halfback Billy Fulton.

Shore have lost two fine backs in Ben Meyer and Brad Miller.

Counties Manukau

Most teams have a realistic chance of making the final on the July 24, but Pukekohe look to be the strongest team, with the return of Api Naevo, James Carew, and the introduction of a number of talented school leavers.

Having played only one pre-season game this year, they could be slightly under done for the first round clash with Ardmore Marist, but should have the talent and depth to be around come semifinals.

Ardmore Marist have had a strong pre-season programme and with the bulk of their squad returning from last season, look to be top contenders.

Last year's champions, Waiuku, should always be regarded as strong opposition.

The loss of first five-eighth, Stephen Donald will be a major blow to the club as will the unavailability of Raymon Lindsey for the first round.

But Donald's brother Gavin will fill the first-five position.

Papakura co-coaches Mike Pirret and Dion Blair have worked hard in the off-season in recruiting players, and have attracted a number of talented school leavers and promising first five-eighths Ata Matatumua.

They should be one of the big improvers from last season.

Manurewa look to have added depth to their squad from last season.

Bombay Club has experienced troubles pre-season, losing a number of players to other clubs and appointing new coaches last week.

Weymouth and Karaka look likely to be the ones fighting out the relegation come mid-season.