GRAND FINAL DAY LOCKED IN | Three big fixtures next Sunday at Sydney's ANZ Stadium! Burleigh and Ill...
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Mount Albert and Hibiscus Coast will be strong, the Central Falcons and Taranaki weak when the national domestic competition kicks off this weekend, but between the two extremes there should be a levelling-out of abilities.
There hasn't been significant player trade in the off-season. Rather, the movement has been offshore.
The benefit of having the Bartercard Cup shown on Sky allowed players to videotape their performances, and plenty have transferred to France and to the Wentworthville club in Sydney, in particular, where former Manurewa Marlins coach and Warriors trainer Trevor Clark is coach, and to other Metropolitan Cup and Queensland Cup sides.
Mark 'Sharkey' Robinson will spark up the new North Harbour Tigers and will be the main point of interest in their opener away to the Eastern Tornadoes at Ericsson No 2. Robinson is contracted to the Warriors until August and is keen to play anywhere.
Warriors prop Richard Villasanti will turn out for Canterbury this year and was to turn out for their game against Taranaki tomorrow as he makes his way back from shoulder reconstruction.
Hibiscus Coast have lost sparkling sevens player Willie Bishop to the Sydney Roosters, and Anthony Seuseu to Halifax, the same club that picked up Mt Albert fullback Lee Finnerty. Lions halfback Ben Lythe was unregistered but moving to Warkworth, so he may end up at the Raiders.
The Canterbury players who were at Wellington have gone back home, and the capital city side has also lost half/goalkicker Darren Kapene, who is returning to rugby.
Marist-Richmond's captain of last year, Paul Ah Kuoi, has retired, Otahuhu captain Boycie Nelson is in France and his intentions are unclear.
Former Kiwi Kelly Shelford will coach the Manurewa Marlins, having spent three seasons with Papakura in the Auckland competition.
That's the bulk of the big movements.
The least-affected side is Glenora, who have all of their 2002 squad back plus Lee Tamatoa from injury, although he's out for the opener hosting Central at Glen Eden as he is getting married. Walter Mackie from the Marlins will bolster their pack.
Wellington coach and last year's Kiwi assistant Gerard Stokes said he expected lots of kids to move up from the NZRL age group competition this year. That will undoubtedly be right because there have been some standout performances among the under-18s but also because some squads don't have great depth.
The Falcons and Taranaki are certainly going to struggle, and when the NZRL does the intended mid-season review of all franchises then calls for applications for 2004 and onwards, it's hard to see them surviving. Some amalgamation is also likely in Auckland. Leuluai admitted that his Tornadoes did not have the strongest juniors base and having feeder clubs in Sharman Cup rather than at Fox grade wasn't helping.
At least there is not the spending madness of previous seasons that pushed several clubs to the financial brink. There's good sponsorship and TV coverage again. But a 10-team competition, 18 games home and away, would be ideal. And one of the 10 should include the Waikato - Manurewa pushed south maybe - because it's a shame the area that produced Lance Hohaia and Wairangi Koopu isn't represented.