Auckland head coach Wayne Pivac has named his team to face North Harbour in the Battle of the Bridge at Eden Park on Sunday (kick-off 2.35pm).
71 Test veteran Piri Weepu will provide vast experience at halfback in a starting XV featuring 10 players who have played Super Rugby.
Promising lock Patrick Tuipulotu and dynamic winger Tenina Saulileoge will make their provincial debuts, while Vince Aso and Saleaula Silipa are also poised to play their first games after being named on the bench.
After returning from a season in South Africa with Super Rugby franchise the Southern Kings, second five-eighths Hadleigh Parkes will captain the team.
Pivac said he couldn’t wait to kick-start his side’s campaign after a thrilling opening ITM Cup match in Pukekohe last night.
“It’s exciting,” Pivac said. “It got underway last night with a cracker of a game by Wellington and they’ve set the pace early on so if we can have a good start to our campaign we’ll be very happy.”
With Gareth Anscombe undergoing surgery on both shoulders which has ruled him out of the ITM Cup for Auckland this year, New Zealand Under-20 playmaker Simon Hickey will start at first five-eighths, and Pivac believes the talented youngster will take it all in his stride.
“He’s a confident young man but not overconfident. He believes in his ability and he has a lot of ability so that’s a huge plus for us.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how Simon goes because he certainly played very well in his time during the pre-season game against Hawke’s Bay so he’s a player I think will stand out this year.”
Another player Pivac is looking to see step up is lock Patrick Tuipulotu.
“He was in the New Zealand Under-20s this year, he’s an up-and-coming player who has been signed for the Blues and he’s got a big future ahead of him. He’s still obviously learning at this level but certainly we think he’s a player that will kick on and have a big future.”
Despite NorthHarbour’s poor showing in the ITM Cup last year, Pivac said he was expecting a lot more from them this season as the two rivals go head-to-head on Sunday.
“The hardest time to have a Battle of the Bridge is round one, the squad’s are pretty much intact, everyone’s level pegging on the scoreboard so there’s no pressure there so I’m expecting them to be a lot better than last year.”
The Auckland team to face NorthHarbour at EdenPark on Sunday afternoon (kick-off 2.35pm) is:
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15. Lolagi Visinia (Suburbs)
14. George Moala (Grammar Carlton)
13. Malakai Fekitoa (Pakuranga)
12. Hadleigh Parkes (C) (Grammar Carlton)
11. Tenina Sauileoge (Papatoetoe)
10. Simon Hickey (Grammar Carlton)
9. Piri Weepu (Maungarua)
8. Peter Saili (Marist)
7. Luke Braid (University)
6. Joe Edwards (Pakuranga)
5. Patrick Tuipulotu (Ponsonby)
4. Liaki Moli (Manukau)
3. Angus Ta’avao (Marist)
2. Tom McCartney (Pakuranga)
1. Sam Prattley (Pakuranga)
16. Nathan Vella (Grammar Carlton)
17. Pauliasi Manu (University)
18. Sean Brookman (University)
19. Sean Polwart (University)
20. Wayne Ngaluafe (Ponsonby)
21. Vince Aso (Ponsonby)
22. Saleaula Silipa (Pakuranga)