Auckland, Hawkes Bay, reigning champions Taranaki and Northland are expected to challenge for the National Rugby Sevens title this weekend in New Zealand
In-form Auckland, a star-studded Hawke's Bay and a reinforced Taranaki are the favourites among the 16 men's teams at this weekend's Bayleys National Sevens in Rotorua.
The two-day tournament, part of the New Zealand Herald Summer of Sevens, returns to the Bay of Plenty city after a decade in the tourist mecca of Queenstown.
Auckland, with current or former internationals Ben Lam, Tutu Tairea and Orene Ai'i to the fore, triumphed in both the Northern Region Sevens and Bay Engineers Supplies Provincial Sevens in recent weeks.
However, the return of key players for Hawke's Bay and Taranaki strengthens their chances, while Canterbury, Waikato, Manawatu, Wellington, North Harbour and Northland are also contenders.
The return to Rotorua for the 40th edition of New Zealand's premier domestic tournament also bodes well for the Auckland women - as they won the last National Sevens held there in 1998 - however reigning champions Manawatu start as hot favourites after they beat Auckland 40-5 last weekend in Mt Maunganui.
YOUNG TALENT READY TO STEP UP
On top of the twenty or so international players on show at the Rotorua International Stadium the tournament is likely to reveal stars of the future.
School-leavers Akira Ioane, an athletic loose forward from Auckland Grammar, Mitchell Hunt, a talented playmaker out of Nelson College, and Solomona Alaimalo, a strapping centre from St Bede's College, are among those expected to make an impression. Ioane and Hunt join an Auckland team much changed from 2012.
Auckland coach Paul Feeney says the team is in good shape as they hunt a 13th national title.
"There has been a massive turnaround in personnel but this team is working very hard, there are no egos and they are enjoying playing together," said Feeney. "Weíre under no illusions though, the Nationals is a tough competition and there are a lot of contenders."
Auckland line up in Pool B with Wellington, Poverty Bay and Southland.
MAGPIES SEEK TO BREAK DUCK
A major threat to Auckland is Hawke's Bay who meet Otago, Manawatu and Waikato in Pool A.
The central region champions, who have never won the National Sevens, welcome back Gillies Kaka, Ihaia West and Trent Boswell-Wakefield from Mt Maunganui where they reached the Plate final.
Kaka, the 23-year old who recently featured in the IRB's showcase of the quickest feet in Sevens, and West, who turns 22 next week, will co-captain the Magpies.
Teammates include Tom Iosefo, scorer of more than 60 tries for Samoa Sevens, one-cap Samoan Neria Fomai and Trinity Spooner-Neera, who has played for New Zealand Schools, Sevens and U20s.
Waikato, with the O'Donnell brothers - Kylem and Declan - and the electric Joe Webber as captain, are favoured to join Hawke's Bay in the last eight and could even be the dark horse for the title which they won on both previous visits to Rotorua (1997 and 1998).
Manawatu, coached by All Blacks Sevens legend Tomasi Cama, should not be ruled out.
NATIONAL CHAMPIONS IN POOL OF DEATH
In Pool C, defending National Sevens champions Taranaki are bolstered by the return of captain Warwick Lahmert and sparkling playmaker Beaudein Waaka. Both missed Mt Maunganui, where the 'Naki finished runners up to Auckland, and add to the existing strikepower of Waisake Naholo, Iopu Iopu and Seta Tamanivalu.
"I am really excited about the potential of this group, it is a very talented team," said coach Willie Rickards. "They have worked extremely hard over the last 11 weeks and everyone has prepared well.
"The Nationals is a tough tournament and you need to get everything right from the first whistle," he continued. "We are looking forward to the challenges that lay ahead."
The first challenge comes in the form of 2013 beaten finalists North Harbour, South Island champions Canterbury and Mid-Canterbury in the toughest of the four pools.
Making matters worse, the runner-up of Pool C has the tougher road to the Cup Final given they are likely to meet Auckland in the last four.
Sevens internationals Pita Akhi, David Raikuna and Richie Ah Chong (Samoa) ensure North Harbour is a contender while Canterbury welcome back Mark Jackman, with nine tournaments for New Zealand, and also feature four Fijians and a Chilean cap.
FIJIAN FLYER SET TO STAR FOR NORTHLAND
Pool D includes Tasman, Northland, Counties-Manukau and hosts Bay of Plenty.
With a buildup including tournaments in Singapore and Fiji, and a win over Auckland in pool play at the northern region tournament, the Northland team is favoured to top this group and Fijian flyer Jone Macilai is one to watch.
The 23-year old caught the eye of Sir Gordon Tietjens last weekend when he and teammate Warren Dunn were named in the tournament team at Mt Maunganui.
WOMEN'S CONTRACTS UP FOR GRABS
Meanwhile, New Zealand Womenís Sevens Coach Sean Horan is using the Bayleys National Sevens to finalise his squad of 17 contracted players.
"This tournament will be the last big push for a lot of players to earn a spot in the first ever New Zealand Womenís Sevens contracted squad, so Iíve been urging those players in contention to work hard before we announce the squad," Horan told allblacks.com.
"Judging from the regional tournaments to date, Iím expecting the womenís teams to be extremely competitive at the Nationals. The standard of womenís sevens rugby is remarkable right now and there is definitely some great talent out there."
Manawatu, with Sarah Goss, Selica Winiata and Kristina Sue among their stars, will be tough to beat however Auckland is bolstered by the return of national captain Huriana Manuel and IRB Player of the Year Kayla McAlister.
"Having New Zealand reps in the team certainly helps drive the training and work ethic to a high standard," Auckland coach Peter Walters said in a release. "The squad has worked hard over the past four months and there have been some great improvements in skill and game knowledge."
Waikato and Canterbury are expected to make the semi-finals with a sprinkling of national players in each team.
Ten women's sides, up from six last year, will play in two pools of five with the top four going through to the quarter-finals.
Fine weather is forecast for both days at the Rotorua International Stadium with matches starting at 12:05 pm. For further information nationalsevens.co.nz
The complete draw is attached. ?
Men's Teams (available at time of writing)
Auckland: Akira Ioane, Sam Limu-Franklin, Kelly Meafua, Mitchell Hunt, Orene Ai'i, Varasiko Duisokosoko, Tutu Tairea (Captain), Ben Lam, Kali Hala, Melani Nanai Vai, Sam Henwood, Leon Fukofuka
Canterbury: William Saukuru (captain), Sakenasa Aca, Solomona Alaimalo, Kieran Black, Naibuka Bukeiteivalu, Mark Jackman, Pablo Metuaze, Solomona Uitime-Paraki, Jordon Stone, Joseva Ravouvou, Michael Stewart, Marty Swart
Hawke's Bay: Billy Ropiha, Gillies Kaka (co-capt), Ihaia West (co-capt), Kalin Paewai, Penikolo Latu, Mark Atkins, Neria Fomai, Tamati Samuels, Timo Vaiusu, Tom Iosefo, Trinity Spooner-Neera, Trent Boswell-Wakefield
North Harbour: Pita Ahki, Nepia Fox Matamua, Anthony Matoto, Karatai Williams Paul, Zac Moimoi, Dennis Pili Gaitau, David Raikuna, Tito Safia, Richie Ah Chong, Michael Little (Captain), Kyle Nu'uali'itia, Tevita Li/Rodriqo Costa
Southland: Alex Taylor, Josh Vosewale, Tayler Adams, Scott Eade, Bryan Milne, Marty MacKenzie, Taina Tamou, Charlie Tiko, Calvary Fonoti, Keanu Kahukura, Curtis Tarrant, Brenton Howden, Ryan O'Connor, Will Murray.
Taranaki: Warwick Lahmert (Captain), Jesse Parete, Iopu Iopu, Lewis Ormond, Lachlan Boshier, Rick McKenna, Beaudein Waaka, Liam McBride, Codey Rei, Seta Taminavalu, Jackson Ormond, Waisake Naholo
Tasman: Sione Holani, William Umu, Hana Corbett-Burrows , Daniel Hytongue , Te Puoho Stevens, Kaide Whiting, James Lash (Captain), Mitchell Scott, Latham Jones, David Havili, Ryan Setefano, Eliot Smith
Waikato: Jacob Ale, Brodi McCurran, Kane Adams, John Malo, Joe Webber (Captain), Semisi Masirewa, Regan Ware, Kylem O'Donnell, Chad Bracey, Declan O'Donnell, Dylan Collier, Rupeni Tamanikaiyaroi
Women's Teams: Auckland: Charlotte Scanlan, Conal Grant, Mele Hufanga, Tiana Ngawati, Bella Milo, Loretta Lealiifano, Justine Lavea, Linda Itunu, Huriana Manuel (Captain), Kiritapu Demant, Lara Diamond-Brahne, Kayla McAlister
Canterbury: Amiria Rule (Captain), Zoey Berry, Olivia Bird, Vicki Campbell, Jessica Drummond, Kendra Cocksedge, Dani Gaze, Terauariua Gapper, Dianne Hiini, Tara Horsnell, Erica Prescott, Alexis Tapsell
Manawatu: Wairakau Greig, Raylene Kirk, Stephanie Downer, Krysten Duffill, Sarah Goss (Captain), Huia Paul, Selica Winiata, Hayley Hutana, Crystal Mayes, Kristina Sue, Nicole Dickins, Shakira Baker
Southland : Courtney O'Callaghan, Ellawyshes Curran, Georgina Lindsay, Hayley Crofts, Jacqui Chamberlain, Kate Day, Kirsty Thwaites, Laura Buckingham, Lisa Dyer, Megan Kane, Nikki Heale, Susanna Sotutu