It's that time of year again- time to pack away the (barely used) BBQ's and head to rugby grounds to support your local team. This year's revamped WRFU club competitions are set to be better than ever- with improved scheduling, a new ground and fiercer competition at all levels.
The season gets off to a blockbuster start on Saturday, March 18 with all 14 Premier and Premier Reserve teams to play at Awakairangi Park and Maoribank Park in Upper Hutt.
The Gala Day opening will be a must-watch for any grassroots rugby fan. Awakairangi Park hosts club rugby for the first time with the feature match being a repeat of last year's Jubilee final between 2016 champions Tawa and Marist St Pats.
If this isn't enough- how about food and drink stalls across both parks to keep the family happy?
Before getting stuck into some pre-season analysis, let's get our head around the key changes to this year's competition format:
1. Better alignment of Premier and Premier Reserve fixtures
Game days are now that much more exciting. The Premier and Premier Reserve teams from each club will now align their fixtures throughout the entire season. The Premier Reserves will always play the curtain raiser to their club's top team. The reserves will kick off at 12.45pm and Premier team at 2.45pm.
2. Changes to the second-round competitions
- The Hardham Cup is reduced from 8 to 6 teams
- Only Premier teams will compete
- Each team will play each other home and away in a 10-week round robin.
- A playoff series is not included
Premier Reserve teams will now either play for the Ed Chaney Cup or HD Morgan Memorial Trophy in the second-round.
The reserve teams whose Premier team qualified for the Jubilee Cup will play for the Ed Chaney Cup; whereas clubs competing in the Hardham Cup will now have their reserves team competing for the HD Morgan Memorial Trophy.
3. Earlier start date to Swindale/Harper Lock Shield Season
Club rugby fans can rest easy- the Premier and Premier Reserves season now starts one week earlier on Saturday, March 18. It'll be a full 13-week round robin and include one round on Anzac Day in the afternoon.
The wait is nearly over!
Now for the key question. Which Premier teams are leading contenders to take out the Swindale Shield?
Tawa- as Jubilee Cup Champions clearly warrant respect. They will be determined to get off to a stronger start this season and will benefit from the expertise of former Highlander Shaun Treeby as assistant coach. Impressive halfback Kemara Hauiti-Parapara is also one to look out for.
Not surprisingly, Old Boys University- last year's Swindale Shield winners- are looking strong. The team are going through a period of transition following the departure of head coach Jeremy Little. Despite this, optimism is high. Former Harlequin's player Jamie Williams has been promoted to head coach and he'll be supported by former Maori All Black Rua Tipoki. Without doubt- if the backs can learn to step like Tipoki- it'll be exciting times ahead at Nairnville Park!
Marist St Pats will be determined to make amends for last year's loss to Tawa in the Jubilee Cup final. They have a brand new coaching duo including former Wellington and Bay of Plenty lock Bernie Upton. The team look exceptionally strong with a number of Wellington age-group and Lions representative players in their ranks. Add to this a sprinkling of Samoa Under-20 trialists and the talented Billy Proctor and you can expect the 'red machine' will be exceptionally tough to beat.
Fans can also expect Wellington Axeman, Poneke, Oriental-Rongotai, Hutt Old-Boys Marist, Wainuiomata and Petone to give this year's favourites a decent run for their money.
So who's this year's 'dark horse'?
Sometimes stability can be a team's greatest strength. Norths have kept their core squad from last year and their entire coaching panel are back for another season. Expect their passionate fans to carry the team through some major upset wins.
And as always don't write off proud clubs like Avalon, Johnsonville and Paremata-Plimmerton, who have been working hard in the off season and will have some surprises for their more fancied rivals.
The Premier Reserve first-round competition- the Harper Lock Shield- is equally difficult to predict. MSP had a sensational year in 2016 having only conceding one loss and a staggering final points difference of +377.
Despite last year's dominance, expect the usual changes in player squads to result in a more even competition this year. Again, expect the usual suspects- OBU, Petone, HOBM and Poneke- to put together another strong fight for the 2017 title.
This season's first round Women's premier club competition- the Fleurs Trophy- will be keenly contested. Oriental-Rongotai and Northern United will be looking to repeat their 2016 first round success, although they can expect a fierce challenge from Victoria Tavern Trophy-holders Wainuiomata. The team from over the hill were outstanding last year having gone through the second-round competition undefeated. Expect OBU to be competitive again.
The Women's second-tier competition- the Senior Women's grade- traditionally starts in the second-round. Both MSP and Poneke are coming off successful seasons last year and will be at shorts odds to take out the 2017 competition.
The Colts Competition continues to play a critical role in supporting player development from college-leaver to Premier level. This grade offers a great opportunity for fans to catch an early glimpse of future Swindale Shield and Wellington Lions stars.
Who are the favourites to take out this year's Division A Colts competition?
Reigning John E Kelly Memorial Cup champions OBU Green look exceptionally strong again this year- followed closely by HOBM and MSP. OBU will benefit from the injection of college talent from last year's Weltec First XV Premiership winners Wellington College although they will miss the influence of coach Jamie Williams.
The Colts Division B competition will be equally competitive- with teams fighting out for success in the first-round JRD Cup and subsequent promotion to Division A.
2017 will be another big year for the other major club competitions including the First Grade and Under-85 Kg's. These grades provide another great platform for players to launch their club careers.
The Reserves and Presidents competitions also offer players great opportunities to play rugby alongside a decent dose of socialising!
So there it is, another cracking season of club rugby is in front of us. Competition across all grades looks extremely strong. It would take a brave person to confidently predict any competition winner although I am sure there will be no shortage of fans willing to give it a decent crack!
Good luck to all teams, fans and volunteers involved- it's going to be another big year ahead.