Kieran Read's first provincial game in 11 years ended with a somewhat predictable defeat to defending champions Tasman but the former All Blacks captain savoured his long-awaited debut for Counties Manukau.
On a crisp night in Pukekohe, Read returned to his roots as he made his debut for the province where he grew up, following a decade-long career with Canterbury.
The 34-year-old enjoyed a preseason hit-out against Bay of Plenty last week, in his first match since February, but this outing in his favoured No 8 jersey marked his first proper gallop for Counties Manukau.
Read was on restricted minutes as his body adjusts to taking contact again and he will sit out two away fixtures this season while he commutes from Christchurch. He will, therefore, miss Counties Manukau's next match in Napier before returning against Northland the following week, but is otherwise available for the full campaign.
Read and the Counties team had to recover from a gastro bug that ripped through the team this week. The two-time World Cup winner was replaced at halftime — after helping lock Potu Leavasa crash over in the first half of the 41-24 defeat.
"It was a very proud moment in my career. It has been a long time," Read said. "You just don't get to play this footy when you're with the All Blacks. I enjoyed getting alongside all the boys this week and getting to know them. It's a big side of New Zealand rugby, this level and the grassroots. I definitely feel that connection to the region from the guys here and how much it means.
"I had a lot of friends and family who would've liked to have been here but my parents are here fortunately so it was nice to have them come and watch.
"The body is feeling really good. We're working with my Japanese club in terms of minutes so 40 today and we'll work to progress that as we go through," Read said.
"When I am available from now on I'm good to play as long as they want me to. We prepared really well and in patches of that game where right in it especially going into halftime we fought our way back.
"A couple of soft tries we let them in so we'll work on that."
Shannon Frizell scores a try for Tasman. Photo / Photosport
While Read was a focal figure, All Blacks flanker Dalton Papalii impressed in his debut for Counties Manukau after switching from Auckland this season. Papalii claimed one try and hit hard to continue his strong Super Rugby form with the Blues.
Shannon Frizell and Will Jordan were among Tasman's best but there wasn't the fluency you would expect from a side that went unbeaten last season and last lost in October 2018.
The scoreboard suggests otherwise but Tasman will expect more from a side stacked with Super Rugby players and four All Blacks.
Counties rallied from a slow start, but Tasman were always in control with Highlanders playmaker Mitch Hunt kicking the visitors clear before Leicester Faingaanuku and Frizell blew out the margin in the second half.
Tasman arrived with intent to start their title defence in dominant fashion.
The Mako are well known for their flamboyant backline talent, which now includes off-season recruits Sevu Reece and Mark Telea, but it was the forwards who set the platform with Crusaders hooker Andrew Makalio claiming the first two tries from rolling mauls.
When lock Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta crashed over after a Baden Kerr intercept pass for Tasman's third try inside 20 minutes for a 21-3 lead, a long night loomed for the Steelers.
After spending much of the first half on the back foot defending, Counties finally sprung into life. Tries on debut from Leavasa and Papalii narrowed the margin to 21-17 at halftime.
Counties claimed the final try through Viliami Taulani, and the final five-tries-to-three defeat offers heart they will be competitive this season.
Tasman 41 (Andrew Makalio 2, Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta, Leicester Faingaanuku, Shannon Frizell tries; Mitchell Hunt 4 cons, 2 pens, Tim O'Malley con) def Counties Manukau 24 (Potu Leavasa, Dalton Papalii, Viliami Taulani tries; Baden Kerr 3 cons, pen). HT: 21-17