Wanganui takes on King Country in Ohakune on Saturday in what promises to be a most interesting dress rehearsal for the 2015 Pink Batts Heartland rugby championship which starts on August 22.
There are a number of newcomers in both the Steelform Wanganui and Ssangyong King Country Rams squads for the non first-class fixture at Rockfort Park.
It will be played as a trial match in four quarters and there will also be a curtain raiser between the two Development teams from each union.
Last season Wanganui pipped King Country 35-34 in a similar pre-season game in Turangi. The Rams carried on to top the qualifying for the Lochore Cup, including a rare 17-14 away win over North Otago, and finished with 7th overall ranking in the Heartland competition , the best effort since placing sixth in 2007 and 2008.
The Butcher Boys, after a second disappointing start to a championship campaign, thankfully recovered to finish fifth overall by shading North Otago 14-12 away in the Lochore Cup final.
And it was a fine comeback 37-6 scalping of the Rams, in Te Kuiti, that enable Wanganui to reach that final. King Country had pipped Wanganui 30-29 a week earlier in the final Heartland qualifying match.
Wanganui snared two consolation points from that one point defeat to head off the Thames Valley Swamp Foxes by 11 to four on a countback of differential points for the fourth Lochore Cup qualifying berth.
Wanganui and King Country go into Saturday's match in Ohakune with a victory each in lead-up games - Wanganui beating Wairarapa-Bush 19-12 in a trial game in Palmerston North on June 24 and last weekend King Country beat the Taranaki Development XV 19-17 in Pio Pio, a rare win for the Rams over Ferdinand.
With a sprinkling of new talent on the Wanganui club scene this season, including several enterprising Pacific Island players, there is a fair amount of optimism regarding Wanganui's Heartland prospects this year.
Wanganui rode on the crest of a wave for the first seven years of the Heartland championship, winning the Meads Cup three times (2009-09-11) and finishing second four times (to Wairarapa-Bush in 2006, to North Otago in 2007 and 2010 and to East Coast in 2012).
That shock loss against East Coast at Ruatoria, after building up such a dominant lead in the final, resulted in the WRFU board changing selectors which turned out a disaster. Wanganui slumped to its worst ever placing of seventh in 2013.
There was a sudden change of attitude and dedication within the Wanganui Heartland squad. Former successful selectors-coaches were returned but it took most of 2014 for the players to start believing in themselves again.
But it finally clicked into gear at Te Kuiti when the players realised they were links in a cog and they went on to salvage some Wanganui pride by carrying on to win the Lochore Cup.
Hopefully that eventual success from last season will act as a catalyst for 2015.
It will not be an easy task to win the Meads Cup this season because the overall standard of the opposing unions, including improving Horowhenua-Kapiti and Southerners Mid and South Canterbury, North Otago and Buller, has improved greatly over recent seasons.
Both Wanganui and King Country will be hoping this Saturday's trial in Ohakune will help hone their Heartland squads for important away games on August 22nd - Wanganui challenging Horowhenua-Kapiti for the Bruce Steel Memorial Cup in Levin and King Country taking on the 2014 "glamour" side Buller (10 straight wins and then defeat against Mid Canterbury in the Meads final) in Westport.
Although the Ohakune fixture is a "trial" the result will act as a morale booster for both teams. Wanganui had never lost a Heartland game against the Rams until a 17-16 set-back at Cooks Gardens in 2013, followed by a 30-29 loss in Te Kuiti last season.
The four-man Wanganui selection panel has come up with a few surprises in the 28 players named for the warm-up match against King Country with nine new caps included, the recall of seasoned first five Denning Tyrell and the naming of young Collegiate School first five Stephen Perofeta.
Former Samoan international Tyrell thoroughly deserves a welcome recall, having been the stand-out back in local rugby since his rep debut in 1997. He is sitting on 89 appearances for the Butcher Boys and would have sailed past the century mark with the main stumbling blocks in the past having been family commitments, player payments and work availability.
Tyrell is an expert director of backline rugby, guiding Pirates to successive championship club titles, is the top points scorer in the union this year and was co-winner of the premier MVP award.
His last appearance for Wanganui was in 2012.
Another Pirates ex-rep recalled is hooker Brett Turner who also deserved his selection following a great game in Saturday's club final to cap off another energy-charged season. He played 16 times for Wanganui between 2002 and 2006 and now returns nine years later.
Also recalled is former NZ Heartland international loose forward Fraser Hammond despite very limited club play this season. He has 49 caps under his belt, the last in 2012, but may be used as a lock this time.
Another Ruapehu seasoned campaign who looks destined to play a major role in the forward pack is logical skipper Peter Rowe. He looks certain to play his 100th first class game for the union against Horowhenua-Kapiti in Levin.
Hooker Cole Baldwin is sitting on 73 games for Wanganui.
He is one of five Border forwards in the squad which also includes halfback Lindsay Horrocks and exciting mid field back Poasa Waqanibau who has 19 club tries to his credit this season.
Another very mobile Border Fijian mid-field back, Renato Tikoilosomone, has been named as a loose forward.
With nine Fijians and Samoans in the squad the prospects are for some free flowing rugby during the championship campaign.
There are 14 members of the 2014 squad missing - backs Rema Sagote (Auckland), Tevita Taufu'i (Manawatu), Josh Hamilton (Taranaki), Dane Whale (in Manawatu), Tautahi Rawiri (Ruapehu) and Clive Stowers (Pirates) and forwards Andrew Evans, Sonny Woodmass and Shaun McDonough (Ruapehu), Tremaine Gilbert (Taihape), John Laurie (Border), Darren Munro (Kaierau), Viki Tofa (Marist) and Faalafi Vave (Pirates).
Stowers, Gilbert and Vave are named in the Wanganui Development squad along with former Wanganui Heartland skipper Steelie Koro (Tech) who has played 51 games between 2003 and 2011.
The Wanganui Development team has won the RDO Shield series for the past two years.
Former Wanganui reps to miss sections so far this season include Ruapehu's Corey Carmichael, Ian Rowe, David Gower, Karl Parker and Nick Cranston, Border's Fraser Middleton and Lance Devane, Pirates' Matt Thompson and Willie Kabakaba and Taihape's Tom Wells along with Taihape's ex-Super and ITM fullback Glenn Horton.
Hilton Mexted (Wellington) was tried as a first five in a rep trial in Hunterville.
The selectors have indicated they will add two loan players to the squad for Saturday's game against King Country in Ohakune.
There have been some thrilling Wanganui club championship Finals Days over recent years and the climax to the 2015 Tasman Tanning competitions at Cooks Gardens last Saturday ranks right up amongst the best.
There was plenty of drama and excitement for the close to 2000 crowd with the premier title going right down to the wire before Integrity Motors Pirates made it back to back titles with a nail-biting 20-19 victory over Waverley Harvesting Border.
The real damage was done in the first spell when Pirates stifled Border with a grip-like forward effort highlighted by some magnificent scrummaging and fine tactical play by veteran first five Denning Tyrell.
Border came back with three fine second spell tries against tiring opposition but Pirates hung on to win by a single point for the second successive Saturday, having held off PGG Wrightson/Ballance Taihape 25-24 in the semi-finals just seven days earlier.
They turned out to be 160 minutes of gripping rugby for the players, officials and supporters and proved just how closely matched Pirates, Border and Taihape were during the season with McCarthy's Transport Ruapehu not far behind.
After waiting 56 years for a first title and 66 years to enjoy back to back success Pirates can now shoot for a rare treble with three wins in a row next season - last achieved by the club in 1947-48-49.
Victory in 2016 would enable Pirates to emulate the feats of Ohakune (1986-87-88) and Ratana (2003-04-05) as hat-trick holders of the union-wide combined championships which started in 1987.
For Border it was a continuation of close contenders with two third placings and two runner-up slots in the past four years while Taihape improved from fourthto third.
Utiku OB claimed a highest placing since 2002 by beating Dave Hoskin Carriers Marist 20-17 in the premier consolation final to finish fifth overall.
The Kelso Hunterville bubble finally popped when Ruapehu demolished the champions 28-7 to end a six-year golden reign as senior champions for the Rangitikei club. Ruapehu had been beaten in four finals during that title era and success at last was well deserved and quite timely because quite a few of the young Ruapehu seniors are now ready to replace some of the aging Ruapehu premiers.