In some ways, it was the longest pre-season in the history of the Citizens Shield, and in others, it was the shortest.
While most teams started training almost five months ago, the Covid-enforced break disrupted preparation for the season and many have managed only one game before the first round of competition tomorrow.
Teams will need to hit the ground running to ensure they qualify for a playoff spot – there will only be one round of competition games before the finals.
Imported players will largely be absent from the competition, as those who were not already in the country before lockdown have been unable to enter.
Last year: Champion
Despite losing a good chunk of foreign and Dunedin import players, Maheno will still be the team to beat this year.
“We are looking reasonably good for numbers, apart from the front row,” manager Blair Stevens said.
Two returning players hoping to make an impact are Scottish sevens representative Nick McLennan and Otago Volt cricketer Llew Johnson, who is also a handy rugby player.
They will play outside 2019 Heartland Player of the Year finalist Robbie Smith in a backline littered with North Otago representatives.
Last year: Beaten finalist
Perennial heavyweight Old Boys has dominated club rugby for the past decade.
This year’s line-up was looking as strong as ever, but shift workers being unavailable could be the team’s kryptonite, coach Robbie Breen said.
“When we get that consistency, and the numbers along, the sky is the limit for us”, Breen said.
“We have got guys who couldn’t work through Covid, who have to prioritise things differently than they usually would. Two players to watch are mobile prop Kelepi Funaki, who impressed for North Otago last season, and exciting back Mataitini Feke.”
Last year: Semifinalist
Valley led the competition for most of last season, before coming unstuck against a resurgent Maheno in the semifinals.
However, that was not having any impact on this year’s preparations, coach Mike Mavor said.
“It’s look promising; it’s reasonably inexperienced in some ways,” Mavor said.
“It will be important to try to get off to a good start in those first three or four weeks.
“If you can get two or three wins [early], you will be in a good spot.’
Dylan Edwards and Mark Roney will be absent from this year’s backline, and key forwards Meli Kolinisau and Sam Sturgess are unavailable at this stage.
Kolinisau is stuck in Fiji due to Covid-19 border restrictions, while Sturgess is still recovering from an injury that kept him out of last year’s Meads Cup final.
The ranks are bolstered by former Waitaki Boys’ High School pupils Ben Paton and Jacob Pledger, and Jake Matthews returns from a long injury absence.
Last year: Semifinalist
Excelsior was one of the form teams in the first two rounds of last year’s competition, but injuries stopped the team from progressing to higher honours.
There has been a high turnover of players at the club this year, especially in the forwards, but crucially the backline, one of the competition’s best, remains largely intact.
First five-eighth Tom Moysey has been replaced by fellow Englishman Josh Phipps, who will have the luxury of runners such as Taina Tamou and Antonio Misiloi outside him.
The team will play its first game on Saturday after opting out of last weekend’s pre-season round.
“We will start fresh – there will be some sore bodies on Sunday,” coach Hamish McKenzie said.
“We have 22 [players] now but it’s still going to come down to availability every week and staying injury-free.
“We are not there to make up numbers, we know we’ve got some bloody good strike-power across the park.”
Last year: Fifth
Kurow will be hoping to build on some solid foundations laid last year.
While the side missed out on the semifinals, it had a young team which will be better for the experience.
A major coup is the return of Kobelco Steelers, and former Highlanders player Hayden Parker, who returned to the Waitaki district after the cancellation of the Japanese league.
He has arguably been the best goalkicker in world rugby in recent years.
Young forwards Sione Kaufusi and Kurt Thomas will be ones to watch, while Ben Nowell is a classy operator in midfield.
“Like everyone, our squad has been slimmed quite a bit coming back from Covid,” coach Tim Anderson said.
“You always need a bit of luck playing in the North Otago competition.”
Last year: Sixth
There is a different feeling in the Athletic Marist camp this year.
After struggling for numbers ast year, and being forced to default games, the club has secured an influx of school leavers, many of whom were coached at Waitaki Boys’ High School by Wayne Kinzett, who has taken over as Athletic Marist coach this season.
“I’ve got good numbers, but we are just so young,” Kinzett said.
At a recent training, the oldest player on the pitch was only 23-years-old, and most of the rest of the squad were 18-years-old.
“The young guys are really good, they have so much enthusiasm turning up to training,” he said.
In recent weeks, some more experienced heads had been added to the roster, including Jared Whitburn who will provide support for up-and-comers such as Oliver Kinzett and Will Knight.