Auckland have named a powerful 40-man squad for this season’s Mitre 10 Cup as they look to clinch their second domestic title in three years.
Head coach Alama Ieremia will have plenty of experience and a multitude of talent to draw upon this season, with 13 of his players featuring for the Blues in their impressive Super Rugby and Super Rugby Aotearoa campaigns.
A further nine players have Super Rugby experience, either from Blues teams in years gone by or with other franchises this season, while Ieremia has five All Blacks – Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Angus Ta’avao Patrick Tuipuloutu, Akira Ioane and Rieko Ioane – in his ranks.
How often he can call upon that quintet of players remains to be seen given this year’s international schedule is yet to be solidified, but there can be no denying the depth Ieremia has at his disposal.
“We have an experienced squad this season, and it will be up to the players and management to lead from within the group, to get the best out of our preparation,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.
“We haven’t had an ideal pre-season like other teams, but that’s not going to stop us from being excited and coming out firing for opening round.”
The former All Blacks midfielder is, of course, referring to the cancellation of pre-season fixtures and training schedules brought on by the outbreak of COVID-19 in Auckland last month that forced the city into level three lockdown.
Despite the disruptive start to the provincial campaign, there is plenty for Ieremia and the Auckland faithful to be excited about, particularly among the young cohort of players coming through the grades.
Perhaps the most eye-catching rookie named in this year’s squad is 20-year-old loose forward Niko Jones.
Son of former All Blacks great Michael Jones, Niko burst onto the scene as a schoolboy at St Peter’s College two years ago, where a string of standout performances led to his school crowned national champions in spite of their underdog status.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 2, 2020
Inclusion in that year’s New Zealand Schools squad was followed by selection in the 2019 All Blacks Sevens squad, although injury while playing for the national development side thwarted his chances of an international debut.
However, Jones has been handed his first opportunity at Mitre 10 Cup action this year, and is among a raft of highly-rated rookies, including 2019 Auckland academy members Taufa Funaki, Zarn Sullivan and Soane Vikena, who was named Development Player of the Year at the 2020 Blues Awards.
Elsewhere, new Hurricanes recruit Simon Hickey, young loose forward Adrian Choat, livewire halfback Danny Tusitala and Manu Samoa prop James Lay have all returned to the province after stints abroad in European and American club rugby.
Ieremia will hope the experience they gained overseas will complement the services of the likes of All Blacks hopefuls Caleb Clarke, Hoskins Sotutu, Alex Hodgman and Scott Scrafton, all of whom earned selection in this weekend’s North vs South clash in the wake of some impressive Super Rugby showings.
Auckland fans will get the chance to see their side in action for the first time this year next Saturday, when they open their domestic campaign against Otago at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin.
Auckland Mitre 10 Cup squad for 2020:
Forwards: Alex Hodgman, Jarred Adams, Leni Apisai, Mike Sosene, Soane Vikena, Joe Royal, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Fatogia Paea, Angus Ta’avao, Marcel Renata, Marco Fepulea’i, James Lay, Scott Scrafton, Hamish Dalzell, Patrick Tuipulotu, Jack Whetton, Liam Hallam-Eames, Sione Tuipulotu, Waimana Reidlinger-Kapa, Blake Gibson, Niko Jones, Adrian Choat, Hoskins Sotutu, Akira Ioane.
Backs: Jonathan Ruru, Taufa Funaki, Danny Tusitala, Simon Hickey, Zarn Sullivan, TJ Faiane, Harry Plummer, Tumua Manu, Inga Finau, Tanielu Tele’a, Rieko Ioane, Joel Cobb, Caleb Clarke, Salesi Rayasi, AJ Lam, Jordan Trainor.
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