The Waitomo Group Waikato Farah Palmer Cup rugby team and coach James Semple are fizzing for their first match of the 2021 Farah Palmer Cup on Saturday, July 24.
Waitomo Group have stepped up their support in 2021, moving from the sleeve sponsor they have been since 2019 to being the new major sponsor and will be displayed front and centre on the Waikato FPC team for the next two seasons.
I caught up with the squad as they trained at Ōhaupō Rugby Sports Club and even former Ōhaupō and Waikato fullback Andrew Strawbridge was part of the team's training session.
You could see the smiles across the Ōhaupō Memorial Park as the players prepared for the FPC season.
This season's squad features six 2020 Black Ferns squad members - Chelsea Alley, Carla Hohepa, Renee Holmes, Tanya Kalounivale, Cheyelle Robins-Reti and Kennedy Simon - plus two players who featured for the 2020 New Zealand Barbarians, Ariana Bayler and Grace Houpapa-Barrett.
Seventeen players from the 2020 squad return to play in 2021; they are joined by six players who return to the Waikato squad after hiatuses of a season or two.
2019 players making their return are Jade Coates, Ryleigh Hayes, Rina Paraone, Kennedy Tahau and Awhina Tangen-Wainohu.
"We've also got Vic Edmonds coming back who's played 44 games Waikato, so she's awesome to have back," said coach Semple.
"We really lean on those leaders to drive our standards and set the bar really high, more through their actions, but then holding other people accountable when it's needed."
Of course, all the players do their utmost to keep the standards high because they want to be out on the pitch.
"That was a real focus for us selecting the squad, selecting girls that actually really want to make a difference and want to get better and grow the jersey. We're really happy with how that's been going so far."
Coach Semple, a former player himself, having represented Counties Manukau and North Harbour, is excited to see what 2021 brings after Waikato's strong form in last year's FPC.
"I didn't coach club this year, just to focus on this team. I just love coaching. So, I'm just really looking forward to getting out there and seeing what we can do with this group. I'm really happy and excited with the team we've been able to pick this year," he said.
"We've got some young girls and some new girls coming back as well. I think we've got a good balance - probably a better squad than last year as well, so we're hoping to go one better."
With the club season running quite late, Waikato have had just the two pre-season games - against the Hawke's Bay Tui and the Taranaki Whio - but they both held encouraging signs.
"Gabby Wainohu [Melville Rugby Club] is an awesome winger that we're really excited to unleash on the comp. She'll cause a bit of damage I think."
Semple and the team have selected two new halfbacks along with regular starter Ariana Bayler "to keep her honest", while a few new props have also been selected from Melville, giving the team stronger ball-running options.
"We've got an exciting new centre, Nikita Porima. She's a little bit older and mature which we're excited about. She brings that cool head and a little bit of experience, having played for Harbour before, so we're excited about the options that she can give us in the midfield too."
This season Semple will be partnered by new assistant coach Mike Rogers.
Semple has a message for the loyal Waikato fans.
"Your support is unreal. We definitely feel you and it grows better each year. Last year you helped us through some tough moments in a really tough comp," he said.
"So I'm looking forward to it being even louder and hopefully going one better for you guys this year."
The squad will again be captained by Chelsea Alley, who has amassed 44 caps for the province and this year has a chance of reaching 50 caps for Waikato.
This is similar to the milestone she achieved last season, where against Bay of Plenty she played her 50th provincial cap (Waikato, Auckland and North Harbour).
"Leading Waikato is a massive honour for me, I love this team and I love how we've built it over the years. The girls are working really hard and I'm just looking forward to hopefully a successful season," said Alley.
"I'm looking forward to leading my team out there and seeing our young girls debut in the FPC, and also the comp as a whole, how it's gone from strength to strength in the last few years, seeing the level of rugby go up again."
Recently, Alley has been involved with the Sky Sport rugby panel with the likes of former All Blacks John Kirwan and Jeff Wilson.
"I've put a hold on the Sky TV work during the FPC season so I can focus fully on my team and in my role within this team because I don't take the captain duties lightly. I like to be present 100 per cent."
A leader in all aspects of the game, Alley hopes to keep her recent form and play at the Rugby World Cup with the Black Ferns next year in front of the home crowd and her family.
"We're just looking at getting our combos sorted. We've got a few girls coming back from injury. So, we're just taking the first game as the start of the season and not putting too much pressure on ourselves.
"We're still going out there to win but we're resting girls and trying to get them right for the business end of the season."
Alley hopes to inspire any aspiring women's rugby players.
"If you really enjoy rugby, then it's something that there is a career path for now. So, just get a good support system around you. Train hard, work hard, but have fun at the same time," she said.
"I've got two little nieces who I absolutely adore and I love seeing them watch me play. Then the younger girls coming through as well, I love helping them out and seeing them come into women's rugby and show potential, show their class and see them go all the way.
"Get behind our red, yellow, black girls this year. We've been working really hard and we always appreciate hearing cowbells in the stands or any messages of support that come our way - we feel it every time we take the field."
Alley will again be joined in the leadership group by 2020 vice-captain Chyna Hohepa.
Chyna is one of six members from the Kihikihi club in the 2021 Waikato squad.
Sister and former Black Fern Carla Hohepa, Emma-lee Heta, Merania Paraone, Rina Paraone and Kiriana Nolan all come from the small country club.
Nolan is in her third year with the squad after debuting as a 17-year-old.
She's over the moon that so many players were selected from their Kihikihi club.
"It's awesome. Such a little club but so cool to see people like us making it."
A first five-eighth like Alley, Nolan is keen to get game time.
"When I was 15, Chelsea was driving me to tournaments and now I get to train alongside her and learn off her so that's pretty cool.
"I want to start and compete with Chelsea," she said jokingly.
"It'll be hard work, but worth it though.'
The Waitomo Group Waikato FPC team had a bye week last weekend, with their first match this Saturday at 1pm in a repeat of the 2020 final, this time hosting reigning champions Canterbury, at Hamilton Marist.
"For us going against Canterbury, that's a good benchmark for us to see where we're at, but it's more about us doing our stuff right, rather than who we're facing at that time of the season," said Semple.
"Obviously, there will be a bit of emotion just because of what happened last year."
The following weeks see the team embark on back-to-back road games against Bay of Plenty and Otago.
Waikato then return home for two home games. The first will be against Wellington on Sunday, August 15, followed by one against Counties Manukau on Saturday, August 21.
Both are a part of double and triple headers at FMG Stadium Waikato.
Their final match of the regular season is away to face Auckland.
2021 Waitomo Group Waikato Farah Palmer Cup Squad (*denotes new cap):
Emma-lee Heta, Carla Hohepa, Chyna Hohepa (vice-captain), Kiriana Nolan, Merania Paraone, Rina Paraone
Chelsea Alley (captain), Mia Anderson, Claudia Hobbs*, Victoria Edmonds
Hamilton Old Boys:
Reese Anderson*, Ariana Bayler, Jade Coates, Renee Holmes, Tanya Kalounivale, Leomie Kloppers, Kennedy Simon, Montessa Tairakena*, Awhina Tangen-Wainohu, Kelsey Teneti, Kennedy Tahau, Esther Tilo-Faiaogo (squad training member)
Rianna Aspinall*, Ryleigh Hayes, Chyann Kaitapu*, Nikita Porima*, Cheyelle Robins-Reti, Gaibreill Wainohu*, Veisinia Fakalelu* (squad training member), Huia Harding (squad training member)
Sina Hetet, Grace Houpapa-Barrett
Round 1 - Bye
Round 2 - Saturday, July 24 1pm v Canterbury Women at Hamilton Marist
Round 3 - Saturday, July 31 2.05pm v Bay Of Plenty Volcanix at Blake Park
Round 4 - Saturday, August 7 2.05pm v Otago Spirit at Forsyth Barr Stadium
Round 5 - Sunday, August 15 12.05pm v Wellington Pride at FMG Stadium Waikato
Round 6 - Saturday, August 21 2.05pm v Counties Manukau Heat at FMG Stadium Waikato
Round 7 - Saturday, August 28 2.05pm v Auckland Storm at Venue TBC