Counting down to season kick-off

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ATHLETIC MARISTLast year: Beaten semifinalist.
Coach: Graham Pitches.
Key gains: Dan Walker (England), Simon Lillicama, Connor Newlands, Paea Palaa, Keegan Anderson (all St Kevin’s).
Key losses: Ben Palmer (England), Steven Banks (Queenstown), Jared Whitburn (Australia).
The oil: Expect a keen, quick Athletic team to play with some flair this season. No fewer than 12 members of the squad are under the age of 21. Palmer is a big loss, but will be replaced by another English first five-eighth in the highly rated Walker. Openside and captain Banks, and lock Whitburn, will also be missed. There should be plenty of opportunities for some of the St Kevin’s youngsters, including massive prop Palaa and promising loose forward Anderson.
The quote: “We should be competitive. Obviously we’d like to make the top four, but anything further than that is a bonus this year.” _ Graham PitchesEXCELSIORLast year: Finalist.
Coach: Richie Wilson.
Key gains: Joe Pickett (England), James O’Neill (Canada), Hamish Slater (presidents grade), Ratu Karamaena (presidents grade).
Key losses: John Kelly (England), Joe Collins (overseas), Thomas Shields (overseas).
The oil: The support bases of five clubs were backing Excelsior last year as it became the latest team to attempt (and fail) to stop Old Boys’ Citizens Shield reign. Blues fell just short but produced a mighty effort. Kelly is a big loss but the squad is relatively stable. Wilson steps into the coaching rule with the very useful assistance of Dan Keno. Beat Eastern and lost to Harlequins in pre-season.
The quote: “We’ll be targeting the finals and then hoping to top it off, after coming so close last year.” _ Richie WilsonKUROWLast year: Beaten semifinalist.
Coach: Kevin Malcolm.
Key gains: Rob Verbakel (back from overseas), Harvard Fale (Tonga), Jesse Porter (Harbour), Andrew Cooney (returns), Dean Fenwick (returns).
Key loss: Wallace Milne (undecided).
The oil: Kurow showed real promise last year before the season, and the lives of many club members, was affected drastically by the death of young player Jarrad Blackler. Numbers are good, club spirit is strong and there is talent and toughness across the park. The key man again is assistant coach and vice-captain Ben Nowell, who runs the cutter, while Tom Paton, Forbes Meehan and Michael Paterson lead a grunty pack. Ross McCone and Craig Robson will miss the early rounds due to injury. Kurow had three pre-season games, including the inaugural Jarrad Blackler Memorial game.
The quote: “We’re building on last year, without doubt.” _ Kevin MalcolmMAHENOLast year: Sixth.
Coach: Mark Wilson.
Key gains: Robbie Smith (returns), Carn Parata (Maniototo), Luke Bliss (England), Luke Crisp (England).
Key loss: Sean Taylor (Wanaka).
The oil: The real wildcard of the season. Won just one game last year but has been steadily rebuilding, and the return of playmaker Smith is a huge positive. Those in green-and-black country believe a culture shift has been made, and there is now some confidence back in the club. Beat Hampstead in pre-season and competed well against Central powerhouse Maniototo.
The quote: “I just want to see consistent and accurate performances, and who knows where that could take us? We’re taking small steps but there has been a huge shift in skill level.” _ Mark Wilson.
OLD BOYSLast year: Champion.
Coach: Kilifi Fangupo.
Key gains: Isitolo Hafoka (returns), Palavi Tahaafe (returns).
Key loss: Hamish McCulloch (only available till May).
The oil: Old Boys looks well placed to maintain one of the longest stretches of dominance in the history of North Otago rugby. The squad is remarkably stable, and there is strength, size and pace everywhere you look. Young stars Inoke Naufahu and Filipo Veamatahau should continue their rise. Perhaps the only danger is complacency _ but that has not been a problem in recent seasons. Played in a 10s tournament but has not had a pre-season game.
The quote: “Other teams might have their eyes on us but we just want to train hard and carry on as normal. It’s a long season.” _ Kilifi FangupoVALLEYLast year: Fifth.
Coach: Mike Mavor.
Key gains: Angus Gibb (Palmerston North), Logan Dunlop (Waitaki Boys’), Scott Cunningham (available for whole season).
Key losses: Aaron Mackay (taking season off), Josh Tulia (work commitments).
The oil: By its high standards, Valley had a season to forget in 2015. A huge injury toll did not help but winning just two of 15 games was alarming for the folk at Weston. Club legend Mavor is the new coach and has assembled a good management team around him. With no pre-season game, it is hard to get a read on how Valley will start the season, and a first-up clash with Old Boys is daunting. Might have to settle for simply being competitive this season but should never be written off.
The quote: “It’s a new year so we are starting from scratch, really. We might be a bit slow out of the blocks but the top four is always a goal.” _ Mike Mavor
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