Following Northland's upset defeat over Taranaki on Thursday, a host of more intriguing matches are set to follow in the first round of the 2010 ITM Cup.
Two-time defending champions Canterbury host Hawke's Bay in a repeat of what many regard as the match of the season last year. It is best remembered for the no-try ruling when Hawke's Bay prop Sona Taumalolo was denied due the lack of a third match official.
Manawatu this week confirmed flanker Nick Crosswell as their captain and he will want his team to lift to repeat last year's defeat of Southland, whose pre-season has consisted of two Ranfurly Shield defence romps against North Otago and Wanganui.
The Steelers will open their account under the influence of All Black great Tana Umaga against Otago, while Bay of Plenty make the short trip to Hamilton for an exciting derby clash with Waikato.
Canterbury v Hawke's Bay
Canterbury begin the defence of their national provincial title against Hawke's Bay in Christchurch on Friday.
In a mouth-watering rematch of last year's semi-final, Canterbury face a tricky opening assignment against the Magpies who will be out for revenge at AMI Stadium.
Hawke's Bay tasted defeat twice to the Cantabs in 2009 - the first loss ended in controversial circumstances in Napier, but they couldn't complain too much about their second in the play-offs.
However, if there was any time for the Magpies to pounce and make another fine start to their ITM Cup campaign, it's now.
The red and black machine are missing seven players on All Blacks duty, along with an injured group consisting of Robert Fruean (heart trouble), number eight Nasi Manu (knee), halfback Andy Ellis (toe) and midfield backs Sonny Bill Williams (knee) and Adam Whitelock (concussion).
Canterbury coach Rob Penney will ask the starting XV to win this match, as the bench is almost entirely untried at this level.
"We know they will be up for this game and it's up to us to counter that. We're confident we'll put in a pretty good performance," Penney said.
Hunting their fourth consecutive semi-final this season, Hawke's Bay are missing some firepower of their own in the form of Matt Berquist (Auckland) and Thomas Waldrom (Leicester) but they have added some notable class.
Kahn Fotuali'i proved in the Super 14 for the Crusaders that he is among the best scrum-halves in New Zealand, and former rugby league star Luke Rooney adds a true wildcard factor that will be watched with interest.
This is by far the match of the round and if history has its way, we could see an upset in Christchurch as Canterbury have started each of the last two seasons with opening-round losses before going on to claim the provincial crown.
Prediction: Can Hawke's Bay avenge last year's disappointments? It's going to be a tough ask, but we feel the Magpies have what it takes to upset the applecart in Week One. Hawke's Bay to win by three points.
Canterbury: 15 Sean Maitland, 14 Patrick Osborne, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Stephen Brett, 11 Tu Umaga-Marshall, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Willi Heinz, 8 Ash Parker, 7 George Whitelock (c), 6 Matt Todd, 5 Isaac Ross, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Pete Borlase, 2 Steve Fualau, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Paul Ngauamo, 17 Andrew Olorenshaw, 18 Rob Verbakel, 19 Brendon O'Connor, 20 Matt George, 21 Robbie Flynn, 22 Telusa Veainu
Date: Friday, 30 July
Venue: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Manawatu v Southland
Southland's chase for their third semi-final appearance in three years begins with an away clash to Manawatu in Palmerston North on Saturday.
The Turbos snuck a 25-23 win over Southland in Invercargill last season, so the Stags will be wary of their Round One opponents' ability to pull off an upset or two - especially with Manawatu's 'Bucket Head' faithful cheering them on.
However, the last time Manawatu last met the Stags at home (in 2008) they suffered a 5-18 loss. So home ground advantage won't count for much when these two sides square up.
The Turbos also have a lot to work on following a mixed performance in the pre-season where their form has been patchy.
But even with their loss against Hawke's Bay last week, the squad showed a huge improvement particularly with the set piece forming greater speed and accuracy in the line-out.
Southland, meanwhile, have shown a strong defence and powerful attack during their pre-season matches against Wanganui and North Otago in which they retained the Ranfurly Shield.
"Southland is putting their best side forward and a number of their players have a lot of Super 14 experience," said Manawatu assistant coach Bruce Hemara.
"They have a big forward pack so the boys are going to have to work really hard so we can expect a very tough game full of intensity."
In team news, new signing Shannon Paku will line up on the right wing for the Turbos. Paku previously played for Wellington before heading to the Montauban club in France, and was a long-serving Hurricanes player at Super 14 level.
Up front Mitchell Crosswell gets a chance to add to the two caps he earned in 2008 when he lines up at number eight in an otherwise experienced pack.
While Southland's forward pack largely picks itself, Stags co-coach Simon Culhane has opted to shake things up in the backs. Blues utility back James Wilson starts at fly-half, with Robbie Robinson moving to full-back for the first time since round four last season.
Glen Horton has been moved from his usual position at the back to the right wing, while Mark Wells has retained his wing assignment after scoring three tries in the past two games.
Matt Saunders, who missed the entire pre-season with a knee injury, has been named at centre after Wilson and Seminar Manu were trialled during the early Ranfurly Shield challenges.
Prediction: Southland's defeat to Manawatu last year will be all the motivation they need. The Stags to win by eight points.
Manawatu: 15 Craig Clare, 14 Shannon Paku, 13 Hadleigh Parkes, 12 Francis Bryant, 11 Lote Raikabula, 10 Isaac Thompson, 9 Aaron Smith; 8 Mitchell Crosswell, 7 Doug Tietjens, 6 Nick Crosswell, 5 Reece Robinson, 4 Michael Fitzgerald, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Sean O'Connor, 1 Grant Polson.
Replacements: 16 Rob Foreman, 17 Shane Kingsland, 18 Hamish Gosling, 19 James Oliver, 20 Karl Bryson, 21 Tomasi Cama, 22 Casey Stone.
Southland: 15 Robbie Robinson, 14 Glen Horton, 13 Kendrick Lynn, 12 Matt Saunders, 11 Mark Wells, 10 James Wilson, 9 Scott Cowan, 8 Elliot Dixon, 7 Tim Boys, 6 John Hardie, 5 Joe Tuineau, 4 Josh Bekhuis, 3 Chris King, 2 Jason Rutledge, 1 Jamie Mackintosh (c). Replacements: Brayden Mitchell, Nic Barrett/Micheal Peterson, Dion Bates, Kane Thompson, Nick Annear, Pehi Te Whare, Tony Koonwaiyou.
Date: Saturday, 31 July
Venue: FMG Stadium, Palmerston North
Counties Manukau v Otago
Regular strugglers Counties-Manukau will be out to prove themselves as a stronger force in 2010 when they host Otago in Pukekohe on Saturday.
Wooden-spoon holders for three years running, the Steelers will be banking on former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga to change their fortunes this season as player/coach.
He may not be the athlete he once was but is sure to add belief to a team that will be in a dogfight for credibility.
A weakness last year was ill-discipline and defence. They scored the fifth-most tries of any team -- the tally of 30 helped by big wins over Northland and Taranaki -- but conceded easily the most with 48.
Their pre-season fixtures included a 33-33 draw with Auckland and a 22-21 loss to North Harbour, leaving their long suffering fans quietly confident they can challenge an Otago side under new coach Phil Mooney, the former Queensland Reds mentor.
The Otago back-line has an untested look about it and will rely heavily on the strikepower of Ben Smith at centre and Fetu'u Vainikolo on the left wing.
Mooney's side looks stronger up front where the blue and gold pack should again prove competitive. Paul Grant, former All Black Adam Thomson and skipper Alando Soakai form a likely loose trio, Maori star Hayden Triggs combines with Seko Kalou at lock and veteran Kees Meeuws anchors the front row.
Counties, meanwhile, have unveiled a couple of debutants in the form of flanker Pepa Koloamatangi as well as Aussie prop Jono Owen and confirmed star recruit Umaga will run out in the number twelve jersey after shaking off a bout of the 'flu.
Coach Milton Haig has selected the most experienced squad he could, with the back-line looking like it could have some fun this season with the well-performed Tim Nanai-Williams, sevens star Sherwin Stowers, rising 20-year-old Ahsee Tuala and talented centre Siale Piutau set to enjoy having one of the great midfielders setting them on their way.
Prediction: We going out on a limb here and picking the tournament underdogs to show some bite. The Steelers to win by four points.
Counties Manukau: 15 Tim Nanai Williams, 14 Ahsee Tuala, 13 Siale Piutau, 12 Tana Umaga, 11 Sherwin Stowers, 10 Dean Cummins, 9 August Pulu; 8 Viliame Fihaki, 7 Pepa Koloamatangi, 6 Fritz Lee, 5 Jamie Chipman, 4 Taiasina Tuifua, 3 Jono Owen, 2 Grant Henson, 1 Simon Lemalu.
Replacements: 16 Mark Price, 17 Graham Dewes, 18 Ronald Raaymakers, 19 Jamie Gilbert-Clarke, 20 Samisoni Fisilau, 21 Baden Kerr, 22 Reynold Lee-Lo.
Otago: 15 Chris Small, 14 Ryan Shortland, 13 Ben Smith, 12 Josh Tatupu, 11 Fetu'u Vainikolo, 10 Glenn Dickson, 9 Sean Romans; 8 Paul Grant, 7 Alando Soakai (c), 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Seko Kalou, 4 Hayden Triggs, 3 Sam Hibberd, 2 Peter Mirrielees, 1 Kees Meeuws.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Blair Young, 18 Hoani Matenga, 19 Eben Joubert, 20 Johnny Legg, 21 Andrew Parata, 22 Joe Hill.
Date: Saturday, 31 July
Venue: Bayer Growers Stadium, Pukekohe
Waikato v Bay of Plenty
A Chiefs derby sees a strong-looking Bay of Plenty travel to Hamilton to face Waikato and hope for a repeat of last year's 32-16 rout of big brother.
The Steamers couldn't have been handed a much bigger challenge to the start of the ITM Cup campaign, than their first up assignment against Waikato.
In the days before the provincial championship was established in 1976, the biggest game of the season, was always the battle against the team from the other side of the Kaimai ranges.
It's for this reason that Bay of Plenty coach Sean Horan, has selected a team that contains plenty of previous Steamers experience, blended with several new recruits to the blue and gold uniform.
Captain Colin Bourke, who is amongst the best back rowers in the country, leads the current Steamers caps tally having turned out for his province on 68 occasions.
The front row of Joe Savage, John Pareanga and Josh Hohneck provide a strong and tough front three that Waikato will find hard to get the better off.
There are high expectations for fly-half Dan Waenga, who is filling the boots of injured All Black Mike Delaney. While Delany is expected to return to the Steamers unit in a few weeks, Waenga - who is making his ITM Cup debut - impressed in the pre-season hit-outs.
Meanwhile, Waikato coach Chris Gibbes is also holding nothing back.
He's named a strong starting XV featuring four recent All Blacks and star new recruit Christian Lealiifano at full-back as the Mooloo men look to launch things in style on their home turf at Waikato Stadium.
The Waikato line-up looks to be one with plenty of firepower, especially in the back three which features Brumbies excitement machine Lealiifano in behind the two flyers Sosene Anesi and Dwayne Sweeney.
Sevens star Save Tokula and the improving Jackson Willison line up in the midfield, while former All Black Brendon Leonard will look to launch things from scrum-half in his inimitable style.
The loose trio of the returned Steven Setephano at number eight and All Black Liam Messam and Jack Lam on the flanks looks an intimidating one, while the tight five, led by tighthead prop and skipper Nathan White, appears the equal of anything going around in this competition.
Prediction: This has the potential to go down to the wire. Waikato to win by five points.
Waikato: 15 Christian Lealiifano, 14 Sosene Anesi, 13 Save Tokula, 12 Jackson Wilison, 11 Dwayne Sweeney, 10 Tren Renata, 9 Brendon Leonard; 8 Steven Setephano, 7 Jack Lam, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Toby Lynn, 4 Romana Graham, 3 Nathan White (c), 2 Aled de Malmanche, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 Vern Kamo, 17 Hikairo Forbes, 18 Dominiko Waqaniburotu, 19 Matt Vant Leven, 20 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 21 Henry Speight, 22 Tim Mikkelson.
Bay of Plenty: 15 Toby Arnold, 14 Lance MacDonald, 13 Brett Mather, 12 Grant McQuoid, 11 Jason Hona, 10 Dan Waenga, 9 Taniela Moa; 8 Colin Bourke (c), 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Luke Braid, 5 Culum Retallick, 4 Luke Andrews, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 John Pareanga, 1 Joe Savage.
Replacements: 16 Simon Chisholm, 17 James McGougan, 18 Aidan Kuka, 19 Solomon King/Sam Cane, 20 Chad Tuoro, 21 Phil Burleigh, 22 Lelia Masaga.
Date: Saturday, 31 July
Venue: Waikato Stadium, Hamilton