Six teams chase Citizens Shield glory when the North Otago premier rugby season begins this weekend. Hayden Meikle casts his eye over the clubs.
Last year: Champions.
Coaches: Ralph Darling and Lemi Masoe.
Key gains: Timoci Bulitavu (Athletic Marist), Brandan Mangold (Canada).
Key losses: Lio Havili (Auckland), Manulua Taiti (injury).
The oil: Perhaps the only thing that can stop Old Boys is . Old Boys. Depth is potentially an issue, as the club has little below its top team, and Havili and Taiti are big losses. But firing and at close to full strength, this should be an unstoppable force. Ralph Darling, Kelepi Funaki, Don Lolo, Filipo Veamatahau and Soni Tongotongo form the nucleus of a devastating forward pack. The backs could be underdone but look for Inoke Naufahu to have a big year. If Maene Mapusaga, Siosiua Ngalo and Sefo Ma’ake get visa issues sorted, it’s game over.
Last year: Beaten finalist.
Coach: Mike Mavor.
Key gains: None.
Key losses: Rob Mafileo (unavailable), Brad Morton (Mid Canterbury), Cameron Schultz (injury), Scott Cunningham (unavailable), Ryan Ambler (Kurow).
The oil: Possibly at risk of slipping back after a super 2017 campaign. Valley was the form team for big chunks of last year, and came desperately close to winning the title. But player turnover has been significant, and the club is set for a scratchy start to the season. Lock and wing are serious concerns. The good news is that master first five Dan Lewis is hopefully returning. Sam Sturgess, Meli Kolinisau and Cameron Rowland anchor a decent forward pack, and much will be expected of Matt Vocea and Brad McKenzie in the backs.
Last year: Third.
Coach: Dan Keno.
Key gains: Jamie Rhodes (Athletic Marist), Taufia Tevalu (Auckland), Whetu Stirling (Buller), imports to be confirmed.
Key losses: Joe Pickett, Anthony Kent, Tom MacDonald, Morgan Dawes, Aaron Martin (all overseas), Oscar Pamment (unavailable).
The oil: Expect a slow start from Blues. The club went all-in on English imports last year, and not one has returned. Talisman Mat Duff is the key to holding the forward pack together until reinforcements, including prop Thomas Shields, arrive. Antonio Misiloi and Hamish Slater could have break-out seasons in the backline. An intriguing addition is Rhodes, who will also be forwards coach.
Last year: Fourth.
Coach: Nic Anderson.
Key gains: Ben Nowell, Ross McCone (both available again), Ryan Ambler (Valley).
Key losses: Sam Forsyth (injury).
The oil: The drums are beating – but can the club deliver on the hype? Kurow is desperately keen to break a 36-year shield drought, and the ambitious Anderson wants to be the coach to do it. He has a stable squad to work with, and has recruited some players from the Twizel area. Nowell, if he plays much of the season, will no doubt be influential. Petelo Pouhila and Harvard Fale are back to lead the forwards, and Tyler Burgess, Johnny Marsters and Jesse Porter are in a potent backline.
Last year: Fifth.
Coach: Adriaan Botha.
Key gains: Sam Tatupu (Christchurch), Jonathon Geldres (Peru).
Key losses: Chris Jennings (coaching), Jamie Robb (injury), Shayle Baldwin (unavailable).
The oil: It will be interesting to see how Botha, the South African expatriate stepping up from schoolboy rugby, guides a team at this level. Maheno under-achieved last year, partly due to a nasty run with injury, but a core of the 2016 champion team is still there. Look for Hayden Tisdall and Marcus Balchin to lead the forwards, while Lachie Kingan, Robbie Smith and Adam Johnson inspire the backs. Would not be a shock to see the green and blacks back in the final.
Last year: Last.
Coach: Graham Pitches.
Key gains: Will Sunderland (injury), Mason Kinzett (Waitaki Boys’), two English imports.
Key losses: Connor Newlands (Dunedin), Folau Tokai (Hamilton), Timoci Bulitavu (Old Boys), Jamie Rhodes (Excelsior), Terence Fatu (Australia), Antini Brown (Australia), Dan Walker (England), Emanuel Dutack (Waimate).
The oil: Let’s be blunt – it is looking grim for North Otago’s most successful club, though this is extremely early in the season. A wooden-spoon squad has suffered some brutal losses in personnel, and depth will be a concern. But there are still class acts in the pack in the form of Junior Fakatoufifita and Jared Whitburn, and a re-energised Simon Lilicama should be the most dangerous back in the competition.