With three months until the competition kicks off, Steelform Whanganui have begun their preparations for the 2021 Heartland Championship as the draw is unveiled.
The provincial competition returns after being scratched in 2020 due to Covid-19, with Whanganui head coach Jason Caskey beginning to think about those who may make the squad.
Whanganui open their season at Cooks Gardens against Horowhenua-Kapiti on August 21.
They will alternate home and away games from there, with two trips to the South Island, to take on Mid Canterbury and South Canterbury and a pair of trips north to Thames Valley and King Country.
"You are always going to have a few down south. It's not always easy, South Canterbury and Timaru is always tricky and Mid Canterbury and Ashburton can be tricky too.
"They're two tough places to go to. We've been there and won plenty of times before, so it's not too daunting that we can't go down there and win, that's for sure."
Home fixtures include North Otago, Poverty Bay, Wairarapa-Bush and Horowhenua-Kapiti.
Caskey said any team in any year could come out looking different, and he expected some hungry sides after the competition was scrapped in 2020.
"It's always exciting when you have a proper competition.
"This year is a new year and you don't really know from year to year what teams are going to be like. You can't go on past experiences, everybody swings in cycles."
The Whanganui coaching staff will spend the next few weeks travelling around the region watching club matches, looking at how the veterans are performing while also keeping an eye out for young talent that may be new to the region.
Whanganui had a handful of games in 2020 against neighbouring unions, with contests against Horowhenua-Kāpiti, Wairarapa Bush, King Country and Poverty Bay.
The coaching staff made the most of the competition being canned, which presented opportunities to look at some younger players without the same consequences week in and week out.
"You can't afford to drop too many games in the Heartland competition. In the year before 2020, we lost our first three games so we were on the back foot the whole way through the season.
"If things go really well through the year, you always have a couple of young guys you want to get game time into. If you win those first few games, it gives you a good opportunity to take a couple of risks. On the other foot, if you lose those early ones, you haven't got the leeway for those risks."
Caskey said he was concerned there were only six teams in the Tasman Tanning Premier division and the potential pitfalls it had for the representative side.
"It is weakening our core strength of Whanganui rugby which has always been a strong club competition, so it's not ideal we are down to six.
"Especially when, out of those six, three are at a level above the other three. Ideally, you wouldn't mind six teams that were really competitive like Super Rugby Aotearoa. You have five teams where any team can win on any day."
Next Wednesday a player muster is being held for all interested rep players, giving Caskey a chance to see where they sit half-way through their club seasons.
"We will do a bit of fitness testing and a bit of skills work. Just to see where they are at fitness-wise and see some of the skill sets of the newer guys."