No competition embodies the passionate grassroots spirit of rugby like the 2016 Mitre 10 Heartland Championship.
Featuring 12 provincial teams from across the country, the Mitre 10 Heartland Championship showcases rising young talent, provincial rivalry, and honours tradition with the Meads Cup and Lochore Cup.
Wanganui will be looking to defend the Meads Cup while King Country will be hoping their 2015 Lochore Cup crown is a stepping stone onto Meads Cup success.
The competition is played in a modified round robin with each team playing eight of the other 11 teams in the competition. From there the top eight go into play offs for the Meads Cup and Lochore Cup while the bottom four drop out of the competition.
This year, a new point scoring system is being trialled with tries worth six points, and penalty goals, conversions and drop goals all worth two points. A penalty try will also be worth eight points with no conversion attempt required.
We take a look at their teams and profile their chances in the 2016 Mitre 10 Heartland Championship.
BULLER – Website
Coaches: Craig Scanlon and Craig Neil
Last season: 6th
Squad: Simon Abel, Phil Beveridge, Matt Bosnich, Luke Brownlee, Josh Cave, Stephen Crackett, David Egelstaff, Lochie Elley, Anthony Ellis, Isaac Hogarth, Dan Hytongue, James Lash, Callum Lennon, Jareth Mackey, Hemi Manawatu, Thor Manawatu, Blair McIlroy, Logan McIlroy, Logan Mundy, Peni Nabainivalu, Tavita Nale, Scott Neighbours, Ciaran Neilson, Patrick Sakuru, Kahutia Parata, Setefano Sauqaqa, Simon Shearer, James So’oialo, Andrew Stephens, Anthony Tailua, Joshua Tuidriva, Zac Walsh, Luke Watson
Players to watch: After topping the try scoring sheet for Buller last year with nine tries, explosive wing Setefano Sauqaqa is back once again. With electric pace and tackle-breaking ability, Sauqaqa provides Buller with a potent attacking edge. Upfront, Buller will have plenty of power with 125kg prop Anthony Ellis joining the side from Wellington for another season.
Prospects: Buller have assembled the bulk of their squad from 2016 and will be looking to build on their Lochore Cup semi-final appearance last year. Goal-kicking half back Andrew Stephens will guide an accomplished backline which features the return of crowd favourite Peni Nabainvalu in the midfield.
EAST COAST – Website
Coach: Wayne Ensor and Troy Para
Last season: 12th
Squad: Tevita Ahoafi, Tim Barbarich, Verdon Bartlett, Pera Bishop, Roha Dalton-Reedy, Mahue Dewes, Todd Doolan, Loni Fisiihoi, Hone Haerewa, Parekura Lalaga, Ricky Kernohan, Caleb Lewis, Perrin Manuel, Tane McGuire, Jayden Milner, Jacob Neild, Kareti Palmer, Kris Palmer, Sam Parkes, Keelan Poi, Rodrick Ririnui, Dennis Te Kahika, George Tuala, Solomone Vaka, Nemani Waka, Ian Wilson
Players to watch: Last year’s top try scorer Kris Palmer has been in electric form for Hikurangi Sports Club and will be looking to improve on his five try effort last year. The play-making pivot holds the key to East Coasts attacking capability and will be supported by promising 19-year-old outside back Jayden Milner.
Prospects: After finishing 12th last year with eight straight losses, the only way is up for East Coast in 2016. The team from Ruatoria will be boosted by a couple of promising youngsters in Hone Haerewa, Caleb Lewis and Jayden Milner.
Coach: Chris Wilton
Last season: 5th
Squad: Peter Antonio, Rawiri Broughton, Scott Cameron, Braden Drake, Rahiri Connor-Johnson, Luke Harvey, Perry Hayman, Bronson Hei Hei, Fa’afoi Ioapo, Nathan Kendrick, Aaron Lahmert, Warwick Lahmert, William Lander, Andrew Lima, Tyson Maki, David McErlean, Rob Miller, Will Millins, Willie Paia’aua, Ethan Pollock, Tyrone Rerekura, Ryan Shelford, Josiah Smith, Hone Taipa, Aaron Taipa, Michael Tambour, David Thompson, Vili Tia, Louie Tovo, Tausani Ulu-kini, Clayton Winiata, Tainui Woodmas, Sonny Woodmas, Thomas Zimmerman
Players to watch: Former New Zealand Sevens star Warwick Lahmert will look to spark Horowhenua Kapiti’s attack from first five-eighth and will need to be watched closely by opposition defence. In the forwards, 115kg powerhouse Tyson Maki will provide plenty of go-forward from number eight.
Prospects: Despite the losses of classy first five-eighth Brayden Laursen and last year’s top try scorer Teegan Minkley, Horowhenua Kapiti still boast an exciting team with plenty of experience. If they can start the season strong then the team from Levin will be a real chance to make the Meads Cup round.
Coach: Daniel Alofa
Last season: 7th (Lochore Cup winners)
Squad: Daniel Baxter, Dean Church, Whakataki Cunningham, Josh Dais, Aarin Dunster, Mike Foden, James Hemara, Charlie Henare, Stevie Henry, John Koko, Villiami Lomano, Brian Mansfield, Gary Mansfield, Te Waiti Mareikura, Sam Mason, Adam Morris, Thomas Orr, Chanse Perham, Kieron Rollinson, Rob Sherson, Steve Te Moananui, Zayn Tipping, Matt Towers, Stephan Turner, Gene Waller, Jesse Williams, Anthony Wise
Players to watch: With over 100 points during last year’s Heartland Championship, goal-kicking halfback Zayn Tipping will again be a vital man in the King Country side. Experienced lock Aarin Dunster is also back for another season and needs just six more caps to mark 100 appearances for King Country.
Prospects: King Country will be looking to use last year’s Lochore Cup success as a stepping stone to Meads Cup glory. With the bulk of their team back from last year, King Country will be one of the teams to beat in 2016.
MID CANTERBURY – Website
Coach: James Jowsey and Craig Dunlea
Last season: 2nd
Squad: Tyler Blackburn, Logan Bonnington, Richard Catherwood, Nete Caucau, Jon Dampney, Iromi Dawai, Jackson Donlan, Eric Duff, Hamish Finnie, Seta Koroitamana, Luke Leasoki, Andrew Letham, Angus Lindsay, Mike Lynch, Will Mackenzie, Troy Mangan, Nick McKain, Timoci Nabakeke, Kody Nordquist, Jared Percival, Brendon Ridgen, Ollie Sapsford, Maleli Sau, Koli Tamanitokula, Tavita Ula, Christian Vainere, Phil Watson, Adam Williamson
Players to watch: Speedy outside back Timoci Nabakeke has been performing well for Rakaia at club level and will be eager to showcase his attacking ability on the Heartland stage. At fullback, Andrew Letham has been a top performer for Mid Canterbury over the past two seasons and is sure to feature highly on the score sheet again this year.
Prospects: After losing just one game during round robin play, Mid Canterbury were disappointed to be knocked out of the Meads Cup by Wanganui in the semi-final. That loss will serve to motivate Mid Canterbury as the chase a third Meads Cup title after prevailing in 2013 and 2014.
Coach: Barry Stevens
Last season: 8th
Squad: Marcus Belchin, Josh Casey, Jacob Coughlan, Ralph Darling, Tyron Davies, Matt Duff, Harvard Fale, Jake Greenslade, Melikisua Kolinisau, Simon Lilicama, Lemi Masoe, Marene Mapusage, Kanye Middleton, Sione Misilou, Cameron Morris, Inoke Naufahu, Siosuia Ngalo, Robert Pamment, Joe Pickett, Sale Pi’i, Robert Richardson, Craig Smith, Robbie Smith, Samisoni Tongotongo, Dan Towler, Shae Tucker, Filipo Veamatahau, Matthew Vocea, Jared Whitburn
Players to watch: Flanker Matt Duff has been a consistent performer for a few seasons and will be relied on heavily for his industrious work at the breakdown. Imposing lock Sale Pi’i is set for another big season with his strong ball carrying vital in the tight exchanges.
Prospects: North Otago haven’t won the Meads Cup since 2010 and face a stiff challenge this year with 13 debutants in their squad. The Oamaru-based side will need to rely heavily on the experience of centre Lemi Masoe and prop Ralph Darling if they are to compete in 2016.
Coach: Mutu Ngarimu
Last season: 11th
Squad: Russell Burns, Jacob Cook, Mario Counsell, Ratu Daurua, Lance Dickson, Rico Gear, Maia Gibbs, Dan Goodwin, James Grogan, Willie Grogan, Murray Hewson, Leslie Hills, Jake Holmes, Conan Houkamau, Kenneth Houkamau, Isaiah Leach, Lyndon Manuel, Adam McGarvey, Scott McKinley, Siosuia Moala, Tau Moeke, Sione Ngatu, Toru Noanoa, Geoff Pari, Jake Paringatai, Ethine Reeves, Tamati Samuels, Keiran Short, Devonte Stuart, Sione Tamale, Manase Tupe, Isaia Vuki
Players to watch: In fullback Ethine Reeves, Poverty Bay have a genuine game-breaker while former All Black Rico Gear and former Northland star Jake Paringatai add real experience to a young side.
Prospects: After winning four Lochore Cup titles in the first six years of the Heartland Championship, Poverty Bay have fallen away over the past few seasons. Despite coming 11th last year, Poverty Bay racked up big points in a lot of games and will need to improve their defence if they are to add to their haul of Lochore Cup titles – or push for Meads Cup glory.
Coach: Barry Matthews
Last year: Losing Meads Cup finalist.
Squad: Mosese Aho, Jonny Andrews, Nick Annear, Rupeni Cokanasiga, Kieran Coll, John Dyer, Matt Etheridge, Junior Faavae, Will Joines, Ata ata Langi Langi, Waisale Leiroti, Viliame Logavatu, Jared Matthews, Conor McCormack, Miles Medlicott, Jacob Mills, Kevin Moore, Maxx Morris, Shay Moseby, Taione Ratu, Zac Southen, Nick Strachan, Hamish Strachan, Vaka Talega, Timaru Tafa, Raitube Vasurakuta, William Wright
Players to watch: With a number of players departing this season, South Canterbury will rely heavily on the experience of 54 match veteran Nick Strachan at flanker. In the mid-field, Miles Medlicott is an accomplished performer and will relish the opportunity of leading the young backline.
Prospects: South Canterbury have lost plenty of experience this season with 17 debutants named in their squad. It will be a tough ask for the Timaru-based side to qualify top for the Meads Cup again but local legend and coach Barry Matthews will be instilling plenty of pride in the jersey.
Coach: Hayden Roe
Last year: 10th
Squad: Ben Bonner, Romy Chies, Rowan Dare, Chris Doak, Jesse Dodunski, Moss Doran, lance Easton, Josh Elgoran, Tim Erceg, John Hale, Nic Judd, Tyrone Keith, Jone Koronisagna, Johnny Mason, Kent McFarlene, Connor McVerry, Jack Metters, Cody Muir, Joape Nauluwavu, Haerengarangi Renata, Matt Rolston, Norman Solofa, Samiuela Stanley, Jonnie Te Ruki-Chambers, Reade Tobin, Rupeni Vakacegu, Kieran Whyte, Hayden Wisnewski
Players to watch: Tyrone Keith is a slippery runner from fullback who will be looking to back up his prolific 2015 form which reaped five tries for the Swamp Foxes. First five-eighth Jonnie Te Ruki Chambers had a stand out season for Hamilton club champions Melville and is a handy import for Thames Valley.
Prospects: Thames Valley are yet to win either the Meads or Lochore Cup and will be hoping to break the duck this year. There were promising signs last years with three comprehensive wins and if the Swamp Foxes can build on that form they will be a certain contender come semi-final time.
WAIRARAPA BUSH – Website
Coach: Josh Syms
Last year: 4th
Squad: Robbie Anderson, Brendon Campbell, Eddie Cranston, Leo Eneliko, Izaq Foa’i, Sam Gammie, James Goodger, Abe Haira, Cameron Hayton, Nick Hohepa, Jacko Hull, Andy Humberstone, John Ika, Inia Katia, Matt Kawana, Blake Knight, Lachie McFadzean, Corey McFadzean, Andrew McLean, Sam Monaghan, Nick Olson, Vaike Potoru, Tim Priest, Richard Puddy, Epeli Rayaqayaqa, Armyn Sanders, Glen Walters, Stanley Wright.
Players to watch: Classy first five-eight Tim Priest will be one of the key players to Wairarapa Bush’s chances in 2016. Last season, the dynamic pivot racked up 124 points and if he can repeat that again then Wairarapa Bush will be a force. Halfback John Ika on loan from Tasman is another player who can make a big impact.
Prospects: Wairarapa Bush haven’t won the Meads Cup since winning the Inaugural competition in 2006 but have been building well over recent seasons. With a number of handy signings, Wairarapa Bush will be looking for another appearance in the Meads Cup semi-finals and go one step further than 2015.
Wanganui – Website
Coach: Jason Caskey
Last year: Meads Cup champions
Squad: Cole Baldwin, Craig Clare, Steve Crosbie, Cameron Crowley, Simon Dibben, Tremaine Gilbert, Campell Hart, Lindsay Horrocks, Bryn Hudson, Jamie Hughes, Samu Kubunavanua, Kameli Kuruyabaki, Sam Madams, Ace Malo, Hamish Mellow, Michael Nabuliwaqa, Peter Rowe, Kane Tamou, Gavin Thornbury, Renato Tikosolomone, Viki Tuimauga, Roman Tutauha, Malakai Volau, Te Rangatira Waitokia, Dane Whale
Players to watch: In the backs, the signing of former Highlanders star Craig Clare is a big boost to Wanganui’s attacking stocks. In the loose, 100 game veteran Peter Rowe will again be relied on for his strong ball carrying and industrious work in the tight exchanges.
Prospects: As the most successful team in Heartland Championship history, Wanganui cannot be discounted this year. The four time champions have retained the bulk of the team which won the title last year and will be the team to beat in 2016.
WEST COAST – Website
Coach: Sean Cuttance
Last year: 9th
Squad: Kalave Aualiitia, Francis Auwerda, Nick Bower, Beau Cain, Josh Costello, David Crouchley, Nic Cumming, Jarrod Ferguson, Daniel Foord, Logan Heath, Josh Hill, Chad Kingi-Ternant, Jesse MacRae, Nick Makea, Josh Manning, Archie McBride, Brett McBride, Maleli Mudu, Vasu ni Mutubabani, Jope Naleqwa, Kolinio Radrovi, Kelly Rasmussen, Trent Reti, Sam Rist, Logan Ross, Regan Stanton, Troy Tauwhare, Inia Toka, Martin Tootell, Amenatave Tukuna, Brad Tunnicliffe, Harley Vui, Brogan Watt
Players to watch: With 18 debutants in the West Coast squad, there will be plenty of fresh faces to watch this year including promising 19 year old fullback Brad Tunnicliffe and Kelly Rasmussen at lock. Local fans will be glad to see the electric veteran Maleli Mudu back on the wing.
Prospects: West Coast are yet to win a Meads or Lochore Cup and will be fighting to break their duck with so many new faces in their side this year. Last year they showed they are a force at their Greymouth home and will need to repeat that if they are to feature in the knock out stages.