Patrick Tuipulotu is the new Auckland captain for the 2017 Mitre 10 Cup.
The 24-year-old All Blacks lock has just 14 caps for the union to his name but is a senior player in a young group which includes two teenagers.
“I don’t think he was expecting it when I asked him. It will be a challenge, but a good one for him. We want him to play well, first and foremost,” says Auckland coach Nick White. “He’s not a huge talker, but he’ll get guys following him. He’s had the odd setback this year, but this should give him a real purpose.”
Tuipulotu’s first assignment will be leading his team against the Counties Manukau Steelers in their opening Mitre 10 Cup Premiership clash of the season at ECOLight Stadium in Pukekohe on Saturday night.
The Steelers reached the Premiership semifinals in 2016, while Auckland placed sixth.
Of note in White’s first team of the season is the run-on Auckland debuts of fullback Jordan Trainor, wing Caleb Clarke, and blindside flanker Samuel Slade. There are also potentially four debutants named in the reserves.
“It’s fantastic to have these guys come through. Otu Mausia has come through the academy, Caleb the schools system. Sam Slade has had a magic year, after coming through via MAGS and our Under 19s and now with the New Zealand Under 20s this year. Not having Taleni (Seu) there gives him an opportunity to start,” White says.
Prop Dexter Fa’amoana has forced his way onto the bench following a fine club season with College Rifles, after losing up to 20kg in the off-season, while Suburbs’ abrasive loose forward Jamason Fa’anana-Shultz is also rewarded for some sterling club form.
Slade is yet to turn 20, while Clarke is 18 and will debut 15 years after his father Eroni played the last of his 154 games for Auckland.
“Caleb is a quality player with good pace and is a big, strong boy. He played well for the Blues Development and NZ Under 20s and did well in Japan for us,” says White.
Several players did not make the Japan trip, but it was an important 10 days for establishing team culture and honing the game plan.
Trainor returns after two seasons in Waikato and will provide one of several goalkicking options, though halfback Jono Hickey is likely to have first crack from the tee. First five Daniel Bowden, in his first outing for Auckland since 2009, is another option, while, off the bench, Otumaka Mausia and Lisati Milo-Harris are both accurate practitioners.
Centre Malakai Fekitoa makes his first Auckland appearance since 2013, while George Moala, last seen in the blue and white hoops in 2015, when he bustled over for 10 tries, is back at No 12. Vince Aso, fresh off a 14-try season with the Hurricanes, will turn out in the No 14 jersey.
“It would have been good to see Mala in the ABs, but he really wanted to play for Auckland before he went to Toulon. It’s good to have someone of his experience there with all the young boys we have,” says White.
TJ Faiane is making his way back from a niggle, so will wear the No 23 jersey in what could be his first Auckland appearance since 2014 after two injury-plagued years.
“We need to be conscious of making sure the midfielders do get an opportunity. Vince is happy to play on the wing and we see him in that position for the next level up,” adds White.
Outside back Melani Nanai has a calf injury which will see him sidelined for at least the next fortnight.
The Steelers sunk Auckland 30-26 last year at Eden Park, with a late Augustine Pulu try, to reclaim the Dan Bryant Memorial Trophy.
“This will be a big test for us against a very physical Counties Manukau side. We need to keep things pretty simple to give the boys the confidence to play,” says White.
Both No 8 Akira Ioane and Tuipulotu return to the ground where they saw minutes for the All Blacks in last Friday’s ‘Game of Three Halves.’
Auckland’s first home fixture for 2017 will be on Saturday August 26 (4.35pm kickoff) against the Northland Taniwha, preceded by the 1A and 1B First XV finals.
Auckland match-day 23 for Counties Manukau, 7.35pm, Saturday August 19:
15 Jordan Trainor (Ponsonby, 0 Auckland caps) *
14 Vince Aso (Ponsonby, 28)
13 Malakai Fekitoa (Pakuranga, 23)
12 George Moala (Grammar TEC, 45)
11 Caleb Clarke (Suburbs, 0) *
10 Daniel Bowden (Ponsonby, 7)
9 Jono Hickey (Grammar TEC, 22)
8 Akira Ioane (Ponsonby, 21)
7 Blake Gibson (Ponsonby, 12)
6 Samuel Slade (Ponsonby, 0) *
5 Scott Scrafton (Grammar TEC, 22)
4 Patrick Tuipulotu (Ponsonby, 14, c)
3 Marcel Renata (University, 11)
2 Greg Pleasants-Tate (Ponsonby, 16)
1 Sam Prattley (Pakuranga, 34)
16 Kurt Eklund (University, 22)
17 Isi Tu’ungafasi (Suburbs, 12)
18 Dexter Fa’amoana (College Rifles, 0) +
19 Ben Nee-nee (Pakuranga, 5)
20 Jamason Fa’anana-Shultz (Suburbs, 0) +
21 Lisati Milo-Harris (Grammar TEC, 0) +
22 Otumaka Mausia (College Rifles, 0) +
23 TJ Faiane (Pakuranga, 7)
Injured/unavailable: Tom McHugh (season), Dalton Papali’i, Taleni Seu, Michael Fatialofa, Sam Ulufonua, Tumua Manu, Leon Fukofuka, Melani Nanai