The Tasman Mako will field a side dotted with Super Rugby players for their Mitre 10 Cup season opener on Friday.
[PETER JONES - Marlborough App]
In a replay of the 2017 premiership grand final, Tasman will take on reigning champions Canterbury at Blenheim’s Lansdowne Park, kick off 7.35pm.
Young guns Ethan Blackadder, left, and Pari Pari Parkinson are set for a big season.
All but three of the starting line-up featured in Super Rugby squads this season, the exceptions being No 8 Vernon Fredericks, halfback Jack Grooby and winger Jamie Spowart.
A formidable front row has been named, comprising Super Rugby legend Wyatt Crockett, hooker Andrew Makalio and Highlanders prop Tyrel Lomax. Locks Pari Pari Parkinson and Quentin Strange are a couple of the youngsters on the rise, eyeing the chance to push themselves further up the national pecking order with solid NPC campaigns, while Ethan Blackadder and Jed Brown join Fredericks in the loose.
Mitchell Hunt, who got limited game time with the Crusaders, is expected to play a much bigger role in the Mako campaign.
Rookie halfback Grooby has been given the nine shirt ahead of Ben Finau after impressing in the final pre-season outing, Mitch Hunt will start at 10 with skipper David Havili showing his versatility by slotting into the midfield alongside Levi Aumua. Pace is not an issue out wide, newcomer Spowart being chosen alongside fullback Will Jordan and Chiefs standout Solomon Alaimalo in a lively back three.
The bench is comprised mainly of club players, with the exception of midfielder Alex Nankivell.
Eight players are set to make their NPC debut in the Mako shirt – Crockett, Brown, Grooby, Alaimalo, Spowart, reserve hooker Ray Niuia, lock/loosie Mike Curry, plus loan player Sione Havili, a loosie from Auckland.
Several players were unavailable for selection through injury, including Leicester Faingaanuku, Rupena Parkinson, Finlay Christie, Billy Guyton and Alex Ainley. Kane Hames and Jordan Taufua have long term injuries and, at this stage, are not expected to play a part in the Mako campaign.
Head coach Leon MacDonald is content with the Mako mix, especially given just seven of the starting line-up for Friday began the 2017 final, which Canterbury won 35-13.
"There’s a good mix of older players and rising talent in the pack. We’ve lost a lot of experience with players such as Jordan, Alex, Pete [Samu], plus Kane, Tim [Perry] and Shannon [Frizell] to the All Blacks, but we’ve still managed to have decent depth.
"It will be good to see Mike Curry make his debut. He’s been toiling away for quite a while at club level and has had a good year so he’s been rewarded.
"The Super Rugby guys seem really hungry to play – they are in a strong mental state, not worn out after long campaigns.”
Attempting to bring a team, composed of players involved in separate competitions, together in such a limited time frame has always been a challenge, admitted MacDonald. "Sometimes it feels like we are starting from scratch … coming together in a four or five-day window is pretty tough but we have done really well this week and I’m happy with where we are at.
"It’s a race for both teams to see who can get the most cohesion within a short time frame.”
Last season the Mako lost their first two games, including a 39-0 thrashing by Canterbury in the corresponding fixture, putting Tasman on the back foot from the outset. MacDonald feels his side are better prepared physically and mentally this time around.
"You obviously never know until you run onto the field but, with round one being against Canterbury, a positive result will put us in a good frame of mind … we are wanting to hit that field in a lot better state than we did last year.”
Friday’s match signals the beginning of MacDonald’s final season with the Mako, at least in the foreseeable future, and he’s excited by the challenge awaiting him.
"I just want to enjoy the whole year … this is my eighth year and it has been such a great experience.
"I’m looking forward to the season, it’s going to be fun. They are a good bunch of lads and I plan to enjoy their company and help them play some good rugby”, the 56-test All Black added.
The Red and Blacks are paying $2 at the NZ TAB to win the NPC crown again, the Mako $6.50.
The Mako team for Friday: 1 Wyatt Crockett, 2 Andrew Makalio, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 4 Pari Pari Parkinson, 5 Quentin Strange, 6 Ethan Blackadder, 7 Jed Brown, 8 Vernon Fredericks; 9 Jack Grooby, 10 Mitchell Hunt, 11 Solomon Alaimalo, 12 David Havili (captain), 13 Levi Aumua, 14 Jamie Spowart, 15 Will Jordan.
Reserves: Ray Niuia, Ryan Coxon, Blair Prinsep, Mike Curry, Sione Havili, Ben Finau, Tim O’Malley, Alex Nankivell.
Canterbury squad: Sam Beard, George Bridge, Phil Burleigh, Brett Cameron, Tom Christie, Hamish Dalzell, Whetu Douglas (co-captain), Mitchell Drummond (co-captain), Mitchell Dunshea, Ereatara Enari, Braydon Ennor, Sef Fa'agase, Billy Harmon, Alex Hodgman, Oliver Jager, Chris King, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Caleb Makene, Josh McKay, Greg Pleasants-Tate, Reed Prinsep, Ngane Punivai, Luke Romano, Tom Sanders, Siate Tokolahi, Nathan Vella.