The Tasman Tanning 2020 Whanganui premier club rugby season gets under way this weekend after having its season delayed due to Covid-19 and the various lockdown restrictions.
Clubs recommenced rugby training, albeit in 10-person bubbles, in late May after the Covid-19 lockdown and have spent the last six weeks getting as match-ready as possible.
The 2020 competition format has been rejigged three times and has been finalised as a six-team league with 10 weeks of games followed by two weeks of playoffs.
Wanganui Car Centre Kaierau are looking to build on a strong 2019 campaign that saw them make a semifinal appearance after finishing fifth the previous three years.
They open their season against reigning premier and senior grade champions Byford's Readimix Taihape, spearheaded by experienced Whanganui rep players Dane Whale and Tremaine Gilbert.
Kaierau coach Carl Gibson is going into their opening weekend clash with "a huge amount of respect".
"They're a very well organised and drilled team with a lot of really experienced players in there.
"They are the champions and you don't become champions for no reason. Every time we play them we have had really good physical games that go for a full 80 minutes."
A pre-season trip to Western Samoa had the side confident going into the season, before Covid-19 hit and team trainings and preparations were scrapped.
While the disruption to their early pre-season plans wasn't ideal, Gibson said the trip to Samoa was a great experience for his side.
Getting down and dirty in cross country
"It was a good way to unite. It was more about bonding the team together and building a team culture.
"They all kept in touch on social media [through Covid-19] so we didn't lose that culture."
Gibson credits two tough pre-season games against Kia Toa and Wairarapa Bush for getting his side well-prepared for the season.
"The boys shaped up quite well in those games so very happy with the lead-in and the attitudes."
Gibson said they have high aspirations for the 2020 campaign after last year's 19-9 semifinal loss to Waverley Harvesting Border.
"We gotta make that top four first, that's the most important thing, especially when it's only 12 weeks and every game counts."
Gibson isn't overlooking any teams, knowing full well how quickly fortunes can change.
"Any of these teams in this competition can get a run. It's just about keeping the team going, having good numbers and hoping the injury toll doesn't count too much against you. It's a game of attrition when it's intense all the way through, so hopefully we will be there at the end."
Dave Hoskin Carriers Marist are going rural to take on the newly promoted Settlers Honey Ngamatapouri.
New Marist coach Travis Hopkins says with the departure of some veterans, they're in a rebuilding phase.
"We've lost a fair amount of experience over the last few years. It creates opportunities for young guys to fill those spots and the ones that have put their hands up are making the most of it."
Hopkins said they were tracking well with player numbers pre-Covid, but since the lockdown they have struggled to retain players.
"I'll be brutally honest, it has been pretty tough. Interest has been limited and that's showing numbers-wise.
"I don't know what it is, trying to get people playing premier rugby. Our numbers will be minimal, we will obviously have a team, but how deep the bench goes will be questionable."
While numbers have been an issue for Marist, those who are there have a great attitude, Hopkins said.
"We would be aiming for top-four, that's our first goal. How things progress after that will be a game-by-game case."
After finishing in the bottom two in the first round of the 2019 Premier season, Ngamatapouri were relegated to the senior league for the remainder of the campaign. They went on to win the division two title and have been pushed back into the premiership.
Manager Gerald Pearce said they are ready to prove they can compete with the region's best after "running on instinct" in 2019 without a coach to lead the side.
"Our practice numbers are looking a lot better than in the past."
Danny Tamehana has taken over as head coach, with Pearce applauding the culture and environment he has brought to the team already.
Pearce said the delayed season may have been beneficial for them as it gave them more time to get organised.
"A lot of our players are busy with work commitments, a number work in the honey industry and that's really busy till about April so it's really hard to get something together early."
With a dozen new faces and plenty of speed, Ngamatapouri will be looking to play an expansive style of footy with NZ Heartland rep Timoci Seruwalu leading the way, joined by Josiah Dawai, Russiate Vukula, Sheldon-Pakinga-Manhire and Api Koroi in a threatening backline.
"If we can secure enough ball, we will play some pretty exciting rugby."
In the competition's final game, 2019 runners-up Waverley Harvesting Border defend the Hotel Challenge Shield against McCarthy Transport Ruapehu.