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Six teams chase Citizens Shield glory when the North Otago premier club rugby season begins this weekend. Hayden Meikle casts his eye over the clubs.

MAHENO
Last year: Champion.
Coach: Mark Wilson.
Key gains: Jamie Robb (overseas) plus two locks (one Canada, one England).
Key losses: Robbie Richardson (Australia), Dan Towler (North Island), Luke Bliss (England), Luke Crisp (England), Carn Parata (Excelsior).
The oil: Hope you enjoyed that spell under the radar, lads, because Maheno will not be back in the shadows for a long time. Literally the only down side of winning a championship in fairytale circumstances is that it puts a target on your back every week. But Maheno has earned that honour, and it will be fascinating to see how the country club copes with the pressure. Robb is a talented fullback, and he and try-scoring final hero Adam Johnson could light up the competition. Classy halfback Robbie Smith and dangerous centre Lachie Kingan will run the backline in the early absence of Craig Smith. Hayden Tisdall, who had a breakthrough year as captain and No8, will play more in the front row. The tight five has suffered some big losses so Maheno will hope its international locks are decent. Too much talent to miss the semifinals but too early to say if back-to-back championships are possible.

Battling through . . . Maheno second five-eighth Craig Smith is surrounded by Kurow defenders during the game in Kurow last season. PHOTO: PHIL JANSSEN

OLD BOYS
Last year: Beaten finalist.
Coaches: Lemi Masoe and Ralph Darling.
Key gain: Don Lolo (Waimate), Kelepi Funaki (St Kevin’s).
Key losses: Sale Pi’i (injury), Samuela Kula (Christchurch).
The oil: Massively motivated after a long run of dominance was wrecked by Maheno in that amazing final. Pi’i is a big loss, but the return of towering lock Lolo to North Otago is a real bonus. Most of last year’s bruising forward pack is back so look for Maene Mapusaga, Filipo Veamatahau and Unga Kefu to shine. Inoke Naufahu, the reigning Oamaru Mail club player of the year, holds the key to an under-manned backline. A wild card is how co-coaches Masoe and Darling balance playing with off-field responsibilities. Will be no surprise if Old Boys tops the table after the regular season, but that does not guarantee a title.

KUROW
Last year: Third.
Coach: Kevin Malcolm.
Key gains: Logan Byers (Clyde), Isaac Milne (Upper Clutha), Zane Gard (Valley) plus import prop.
Key losses: Ben Nowell (paternity leave), Rob Verbakel (Netherlands), Ross McCone (retired), Andrew Cooney (injury), Craig Robson (injury), Forbes Meehan (unavailable), Hamish Thompson (retired).
The oil: Expect a slow start from the men up the valley, many of whom are still committed to summer agricultural jobs. But come the second round, Kurow should be firing. The front row looks light, and the losses of Nowell (for at least part of the season) and Verbakel are huge. But the likes of Sam Forsyth, Harvard Fale, Cameron Bennett and Michael Paterson ensure the forwards will be competitive, and Sam Fleming, Dean Fenwick and Jesse Porter will lead the backs. In the semifinal mix.

ATHLETIC MARIST
Last year: Fourth.
Coach: Graham Pitches.
Key gains: Antini Brown (Perth), Mateo Raturawa (Southbridge), Timoci Bulitavu (Southland), Viliame Tu’ungafasi (Hamilton).
Key losses: Cameron Morris (Australia), Palenapa Mafi (retired).
The oil: Plenty of talk that Athies could be the team to watch this year. There is loads of talent, plenty of speed and a good amount of size, and many of the players are apparently fitter than ever. Jamie Rhodes, Jared Whitburn and Hayden James lead a competitive pack, and try-scoring machine Simon Lilicama and the talented Connor Newlands head a quality backline. Fascinating newcomers are Brown, a skilled first five-eighth who has played sevens for the Western Force, and Tu’ungafasi, a 140kg prop whose brother is All Black and Blues prop Ofa. Keegan Anderson returns in late May. Likely semifinalist, and could go one step further.

Pinpoint aim . . . English five-eighth Dan Walker is back for a second season with Athletic Marist. PHOTO: CASWELL IMAGES

VALLEY
Last year: Fifth.
Coach: Mike Mavor.
Key gains: Meli Kolinisau (Excelsior), Dan Lewis (England), Aaron Mackay (back from year off).
Key losses: Angus Gibb, Steve McLachlan (both Maniototo), Mat Iwikau (Manawatu), Ravulo Kuraduadua (Fiji).
The oil: Strong up front but lacking a little in the backs – we have seen this sort of Valley team before. The arrival of prop Kolinisau and the return of lock Mackay means Valley will have depth and power in the forward pack, and should be able to compete with anyone. Cam Schultz, Scott Cunningham and Rob Mafileo provide plenty of grunt. The backline has been gutted, and the loss of hard-running centre Gibb is particularly harsh. There are big raps on first five-eighth Lewis, but Brad McKenzie, Matthew Vocea and Dylan Edwards will have to shoulder the lion’s share of the attacking responsibility. Will be in the hunt for fourth.

EXCELSIOR
Last year: Sixth.
Coach: Dan Keno.
Key gains: Oscar Pamment (available for whole season), Carn Parata (Maheno), Thomas Shields (back from UK) plus two imports.
Key losses: Meli Kolinisau (Valley), Isaac Shields (overseas), Tyrone Davies (Australia), James Pillay (Christchurch), Ratu Karamaena (Wellington).
The oil: Could be another very tough season for the wooden spooner. Five of Blues’ best performers have gone, and the club does not have the depth to easily replace them. Burly prop Joe Pickett will be back by the second round, and fellow front rower Thomas Shields will shore up the scrum. The desperate hope will be that any imports turn out to be superstars. Otherwise star flanker Mat Duff, solid back Kayne Middleton and promising utility Hamish Slater will have to produce some spectacular individual efforts to keep the side competitive. Very much a rebuilding year.