There is comfort in the familiar and an eye to the future with the 27-man Steelform Wanganui squad that will undertake the short but intensive 2020 representative season.
The 12 Heartland unions and NZR agreed in March as Covid-19 hit that they would postpone the Heartland Championship for the first time since it began in 2006, for cost and health reasons. However, New Zealand's solid recovery from community transmission, now back at Level 1 outside of Auckland, has meant all but two of the Heartland unions have confirmed a limited representative schedule around playing their regional neighbours.
It means that although he will miss the chance to guide Wanganui towards regaining the Meads Cup this year, coach Jason Caskey can maintain the stocks of local talent, who will still earn important first class caps, after the sole "preseason" game on Saturday against Hawke's Bay Saracens in Napier.
"We've got a pretty useful group in there. We wanted to look at some young guys," Caskey said.
"You're still playing for something, there's shields and cups up for grabs that have some meaning for us."
No Heartland unions are using imports or players of origin in their squads, although in an interesting twist Caskey has been able to recall a few former Wanganui players who rejoined the Tasman Tanning Premier club scene and/or would not normally be available at this time of year if Covid-19 didn't still have a grip on the globe.
In the past few years, Wanganui regularly went on the search for midfielders and outside backs from the professional unions, but as well as 2019 incumbents like Josiah Bogileka and Troy Brown, the selectors can now include Grand Irish Bar MVP Timoci "Jim" Seruwalu and Senior championship winner Cody Hemi, who both last played in Wanganui's 2017 Meads Cup-winning campaign and later committed to Horowhenua-Kapiti.
"Really good when you get local boys back that are talented players," said Caskey of Hemi, who came into Heartland rugby straight out of the Whanganui Collegiate 1st XV.
"It's a mixed bag – you understand what they want to do, getting to that next level, so they leave, but it's great to have them back.
"There's a chance to put a stamp on [those spots] and grab it by the throat."
Also in the midfield equation is Alekesio Vakarorogo, who joins his cousin and the 2019 Heartland Championship's top try-scorer Vereniki Tikoisolomone in the squad.
Vakarorogo will be one of three debutants alongside young loose forwards Lennox Shanks and Semi Vodosese. Shanks is nursing a sore knee after Saturday's very physical Premier final at Cooks Gardens.
They both could get added opportunities this season as Wanganui go without the dynamic Angus Middleton, who is getting married on Labour Weekend and will be busy with the standard list of tasks for his big day.
Caskey was very pleased to see the likes of Shanks and fellow loose forward prospect Dylan Bowater return to club rugby after being on stand down for a few years because of concussions – Bowater requesting another year before consideration for the Heartland side.
"You got to look after their health and safety first. It's really disappointing when you lose those guys and you feel for them," said Caskey.
"It's good to see them back playing.
"I understand Dylan's decision. It takes a bit for the body to adjust and you've got to be confident that you're up to the standard."
Even without Middleton and Bowater, Wanganui are well served on the flanks by veteran Jamie Hughes, along with incumbent skipper Campbell Hart and another 2017 returnee in Cade Robinson, who would normally have been heading back to his English club at this time of year.
Also coming back in after last being around the squad in the 2016 preseason is Taihape prop Hadlee Hay-Horton, although he is working through inflammation after a man-of-the-match performance in the Premier final.
With the departure of Sam Madams, there is an open spot in the locking department, with Josh Lane -man-of-the-match in the 2019 Meads Cup semifinal win over Thames Valley - the leading choice to be partnered by either Kaierau clubmate Matt Ashworth or the reliable Jack Hodges.
The Wanganui team that plays against Saracens will skew towards the youth as the veteran incumbent halfback-first five combo Lindsay Horrocks and Craig Clare are among a few players unavailable just for this weekend.
Therefore, Caskey is likely to look at the Kaierau connection of Cameron Davies and Ethan Robinson to run the cutter.
It will not be an easy task for them against the Saracens on Tremain Field at Park Island.
Although Wanganui has a 4-1 record in this annual fixture going back to 2015, the Saracens sides of the past were usually Colts and second-tier players.
This time, because of Covid, fewer players have left the Mitre 10 Cup unions to go out on loan/overseas, and with Hawke's Bay hosting Canterbury at McLean Park on Saturday evening, it is likely their extended squad members who aren't chosen in the match-day 23 will be available for Saracens.
"We're going to go into it with two trainings under our belt, and they've already played twice," said Caskey.
However, a harder-than-usual workout will help the squad ahead of the first-class fixtures, namely the tough task of regaining the Bruce Steele Memorial Cup from Wairarapa Bush, who upset Wanganui 28-18 in the opening game of the 2019 Heartland Championship to lift the silverware off them for only the second time in 49 years.
Wanganui will also want to defend the "Pinetree" - the Sir Colin Meads Memorial Trophy - when they face King Country, who have never held the prize since it was introduced between the teams in 2017, in a match that will be that home side's last game of the year.
It will be a trip back to Napier after that for Wanganui to face Poverty Bay, in a match that may yet be screened on Sky TV as it is the curtain-raiser to the Hawke's Bay vs Manawatu Mitre 10 Cup match.
The 2020 Wanganui squad is:
Forwards: Wiremu Cottrell (Taihape); Kamipeli Latu (Border); Gabriel Hakaraia (Ruapehu); Hadlee Hay-Horton (Taihape); Dylan Gallien (Taihape); Joe Edwards (Kaierau); Josh Lane (Kaierau); Jack Hodges (Border); Matt Ashworth (Kaierau); Jamie Hughes (Ruapehu); Campbell Hart (Ruapehu); Cade Robinson (Kaierau); Lennox Shanks (Taihape); Semi Vodosese (Border).
Backs: Lindsay Horrocks (Border); Cameron Davies (Kaierau); Dane Whale (Taihape); Craig Clare (Border); Troy Brown (Ruapehu); Timoci Seruwalu (Ngamatapouri); Josaia Bogileka (Marist); Ethan Robinson (Kaierau); Vereniki Tikoisolomone (Border); Alekesio Vakarorogo (Border); Tyler Rogers-Holden (Taihape); Cody Hemi (Ratana); Nick Harding (Border).
2020 Representative Season
Preseason – September 26: Hawkes Bay Saracens, Napier.
First Class games – October 3: Horowhenua Kapiti, Shannon (Bruce Steele Memorial Cup round-robin); October 10: King Country, Taumarunui (Sir Colin Meads Memorial Trophy); October 17: Wairarapa Bush, Whanganui (Bruce Steele Memorial Cup round-robin); October 24: Poverty Bay (Curtain-raiser to Hawke's Bay vs Manawatu).