The 2015 edition of the Tasman Makos, the nation's newest provincial rugby side and the most talked about in 2014, is taking shape.
Eighteen of the 2014 squad, which made it all the way to the national provincial championship premiership final in New Plymouth, were signed up for various Super Rugby franchises this year. Of that group, only Chiefs' winger Bryce Heem has failed to front up for another Makos season, the speedster heading for Worcester in England. The rest have put their fins up for another crack at NPC glory.
Coaches Kieran Keane and Leon MacDonald have signed 26 players so far, with three or four to be added in the coming weeks, hopefully from Tasman's club rugby ranks.
Already plucked out of club rugby is Central front rower Jake Stafford-Wood, previously a Marlborough Boys' College player and Canterbury Colt. The young prop will join regulars Tim Perry, Siosiua Halanukonuka and Ross Geldenhuys, plus Highlanders front rower Kane Hames, as part of a strong propping contingent, an essential nowadays with teams expected to name three front rowers on their eight-strong bench.
Of the contracted 26, eight have not come from 2015 Super Rugby franchises. Signed up from club rugby are Wanderers' Halanukonuka, Moutere utility Vernon Fredericks, Waimea's Viliami Lolohea and Jeff Lepa, Central hooker Jesse MacDonald and team mate Stafford-Wood, Nelson veteran Robbie Malneek and former Christchurch Boys' High School midfield star Alex Nankivell.
Only four players, Stafford-Wood, Hames, Lolohea and Nankivell, have not played Makos rugby.
While the retention of so many class performers is a huge bonus, as is the fact they have been shaping their skills at the higher level, the attrition rate is a concern. Outstanding winger James Lowe was ruled out of the campaign this week, the Chiefs' star now facing shoulder surgery and a six-month rehab period. He will, however, remain as one of the Makos contracted players.
Key forwards Shane Christie and Joe Wheeler have also had their Super seasons blighted by injury but returned in Saturday's Sydney semifinal. Loosies Tevita Kolomatangi, Fredericks, who has undergone brain surgery, and number eight Liam Squire will come into the NPC under injury clouds, leaving the squad somewhat exposed in the area of lock and loose forward, a traditional strength. The coaches will have their fingers crossed for good news on the medical front before the beginning of their NPC campaign, which opens with a tough match against Waikato, on August 14 in Hamilton.
As usual the pre-season preparation is abbreviated, but well-planned and designed to give some of the players a chance to rest, and others a chance to shine, before the whips start cracking.
First up for the Makos will be the naming, on July 6, of an Emerging Players side to play the Manawatu NPC team in Palmerston North on July 29. With many of their top players in recovery mode after a tough Super season this match presents a great opportunity for the up-and-comers to stake their claims.
Training for the contracted players begins on July 22 and most of the A-listers should be back for the side's first pre-season game, against Otago in Nelson on Saturday, August 1.
The 2015 NPC squad will be named on Tuesday, August 4 followed by a "Meet the Makos" afternoon in Blenheim on August 5, starting at 3.30pm.
The next day Marlborough fans will have a chance to run the rule over the 2015 side when they take on Wellington in their final pre-season clash, kick off 5.30pm at Lansdowne Park.
Contracted players for 2015 Makos: Alex Ainley, Marty Banks, Shane Christie, Jimmy Cowan, Kieron Fonotia, Vernon Fredericks, Ross Geldenhuys, Billy Guyton, Siosiua Halanukonuka, Kane Hames, David Havili, Tevita Koloamatangi, James Lowe (injured), Viliami Lolohea, Jeff Lepa, Jesse MacDonald, Quentin MacDonald, Robbie Malneek, Tom Marshall, Alex Nankivell, Tim Perry, Pete Samu, Liam Squire, Mitchell Scott, Jake Stafford-Wood, Joe Wheeler.
The Makos roster will be the envy of many of their rivals, but it has been shaped through many seasons of loyalty, astute coaching and teamwork.
Players such as the MacDonald brothers, Wheeler, Perry, Christie, Kolomatangi, Banks, Scott, Malneek, Lowe, Fredericks, Ainley, Guyton, Havili, Marshall and Stafford-Wood have strong links to the top of the south, either through school or club rugby ties. Their personal success and retention in the region underlines the value of fielding a team from the top of the south at the top level of our provincial game.
Last season Tasman won a legion of new fans, throughout the nation, with their fresh approach to a game that has often become staid and clinical at the top level. They also showed that winning rugby is possible with an all-out attacking mindset.
Given the strike power the 2015 Makos possess, a similar approach can be expected. But, as usual, the basics must be attended to first, something coaches Keane and MacDonald will ensure is not overlooked.
Barring a raft of injuries, this will be the strongest Makos squad ever assembled, boasting experience and class in abundance. Their opponents in the premiership are no less formidable though, many traditional powerhouses of the NZ game.
Last year the Makos tripped at the final hurdle. If they were able to go all the way in 2015, just their 10th year of existence, it would be nothing short of remarkable.
A possible starting line-up in 2015:
Forwards: Kane Hames, Quentin MacDonald, Tim Perry; Joe Wheeler, Alex Ainley; Shane Christie, Tevita Kolomatangi, Liam Squire. Backs: Jimmy Cowan, Marty Banks, Mitchell Scott, David Havili, Kieron Fonotia, Viliami Lolohea, Tom Marshall. Reserves: Jesse MacDonald, Siosiua Halanukonuka, Ross Geldenhuys, Pete Samu, Jeff Lepa, Billy Guyton, Alex Nankivell.