Six players have been named to make their PIC Steelers debut when Counties Manukau opens the Bunnings Warehouse National Provincial Championship season against Manawatu in Palmerston North on Friday night.
All Blacks number eight Hoskins Sotutu headlines the debutants with the former Counties Manukau junior set for his PIC Steelers debut off the bench.
Named in the All Blacks Rugby Championship squad, Sotutu has been released to play provincial rugby this weekend in a major boost for the PIC Steelers.
Pukekohe super boot Jarrod Halliday will make his PIC Steelers debut on the left wing. Halliday was part of the 2020 squad but never took to the field.
Also on debut is Blues midfielder Tanielu Tele’a, who starts at second-five, and former Chiefs back Asaeli Tikoirotuma, who starts at centre while veteran Tongan international Nili Latu has been named at number eight and will play his first match for the province.
Reserve back Amanaki Savieti will also be on debut should he take to the field.
Wallaby centurion Sekope Kepu starts in the front row as he returns to his home province 14 years after leaving to move to Australia.
Pukekohe’s Jared Page makes his long-awaited return to the province on the right wing while hooker Joe Royal bench prop Kalolo Tuiloma and reserve back Riley Hohepa all make their returns after missing last season.
Cameron Roigard edges Jonathan Taumateine for the starting halfback spot while co-captain Orbyn Leger gets the nod at first-five.
Internationals Sam Slade and Alamanda Motuga start in the back row while Viliami Taulani will come off the bench.
“With the international window, we had a handful of guys with the Samoan team and a few guys with the Tongan team so we have done a lot of work with the guys that have been here,” coach Lavea said.
“We gave those [international] guys some time to freshen up after those campaigns and they are starting to present now.
“There is a lot of competition for positions.
“We have a healthy squad to start the season off. Training has been super competitive.”
Given it is the first match of the season, Lavea is not sure what to expect from Manawatu and is just looking for a solid performance from his own team on Friday.
“It is always a tricky one – pre-season is pre-season, and you can see footage, but you have to dial into yourself really,” he explained.
“We are under no illusions it is going to be tough down there - they have a good forward pack, a good coach and some good experience there.
“It is the first game of the year and both sides will be up for it.”
The game kicks off at 7pm.
PIC Steelers: 1. Ezekiel Lindenmuth, 2. Joe Royal, 3. Sekope Kepu, 4. Matiaha Martin (co-capt), 5. Viliame Rarasea, 6. Sam Slade, 7. Alamanda Motuga, 8. Nili Latu, 9. Cameron Roigard, 10. Orbyn Leger (co-capt), 11. Jarrod Halliday, 12. Tanielu, Tele’a, 13. Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 14. Jared Page, 15. Luteru Laulala. Reserves: Zuriel Togiatama, Suetena Asomua, Kalolo Tuiloma, Viliami Taulani, Hoskins Sotutu, Jonathan Taumateine, Riley Hohepa, Amanaki Savieti.
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