Rockcote Canterbury Bulls coach Andrew Auimatagi believes he has the ideal balance of hardened veterans and exciting tyros to be able to challenge for the NZRL National Premiership crown over the next month.

Their campaign kicks off against Counties Manukau Stingrays at Mount Smart Stadium on Sunday.

Auimatagi lines up for his third season in charge of the provincial team, with the Rockcote Bulls searching for their first title since their Darrell Coad-coached 2014 triumph.

The Rockcote Bulls missed out on the 2016-17 finals on for-and-against, but the addition of some experienced campaigners is a massive boost to their bid to take the next step.

Auimatagi, the three-time CRL premiership-winning coach, spent last week in Auckland with the St Thomas of Canterbury College side at the National Secondary Schools Tournament.

Rockcote Bulls assistant coach Jed Lawrie, whose Hornby Panthers suffered a third straight heart-breaking grand final loss to Auimatagi’s Linwood Keas three weeks ago, has been putting the Rockcote Bulls through their paces, along with former Canterbury women’s coach Michael Linton and trainer Lee Paru.

“The boys are training well and things are coming along nicely,” Auimatagi said.

“There’s definitely a good vibe amongst the squad, we’re very lucky to have some really good leaders – guys like James (Baxendale), Rulon (Nutira), Alex (Todd), Paul (Sauni) – so that’s helped bring the boys together.

“It’s pretty cool at the end of a long club season.”

After several seasons in Australia, Nutira came back to Christchurch this year and had an outstanding campaign for the Panthers. The 28-year-old is set to add starch and class to a Rockcote Bulls front-row that has hit by the injury withdrawal of Keas prop Jiordan Fidow-Kele.

Captain James Baxendale will also be on deck from the outset after missing the start of the Rockcote Bulls’ 2017 campaign, while gun centre Matt Sauni is back after a season in the Warriors’ InTrust Super Cup ranks.

“I feel like we are stronger. Having Rulon’s experience, he’s in great form, and James is fully fit and at the top of his game, so it’s great to see the guys that were named in our squad early on carry on their good form ahead of this campaign,” Auimatagi enthused.

Fidow-Kele has been replaced in the squad by his younger brother, Thoren, adding to the Rockcote Bulls’ youth brigade that includes fellow late additions such as Hornby duo Brad Campbell and Caleb Tohovaka.

Papanui’s Cyrus Timo-Latu will also play for the Rockcote Bulls for the first time since 2014, when he was just 18, having spent stints with the North Queensland Cowboys and in Auckland during the interim.

Auimatagi knows his side will have their hands full on Sunday with the Stingrays, who have been a bogey team for the Rockcote Bulls in recent times. After thumping Canterbury in the 2015 final, Counties Manukau recorded wins over its southern rival in the 2016 and ’17 round-robin stages.

But following this weekend’s road trip, the Rockcote Bulls have the luxury of playing their remaining games against Waikato (September 22) and Akarana (September 29) at Rugby League Park in Christchurch.

“Last year was a bit tough losing that first-up game (to the Stingrays) at home, then knowing we had two away games to try and peg it back,” Auimatagi explained.

“Like every year, we have to throw everything into this first game, then having two home games up our sleeve will hopefully serve us well to try and crack that final spot.”

As usual, the Stingrays will field a strong line-up featuring some of the best Auckland-based rugby league talent running around – though Auimatagi’s inside knowledge could prove a bonus for the Rockcote Bulls.

“Howick, which is in their catchment, finished third (in the Fox Memorial) so they’ve got some pretty talented guys.

“They have a couple of names that I know from rep stuff like Phoenix Hunt, he was the Fox Memorial player of the year. I worked with him in the New Zealand 18s a few years ago and he’s a dangerous hooker.”

The Stingrays are also well-served off the field with Spencer Taplin taking the coaching reins from the long-serving Rod Ratu, and Kiwis legend Ruben Wiki acting as the team’s trainer.

The Counties Manukau Stingrays v Rockcote Canterbury Bulls clash kicks off at 2pm on Sunday, September 16 and is the first game of a Mount Smart Stadium double-header, with Akarana Falcons and Waikato squaring off at 4pm.

Sky Sports will have live coverage on Channel 52 from 2pm.

Alex Todd hits the ball up for the Rockcote Canterbury Bulls against Counties Manukau in 2017 - Photo Credit: Kevin Clarke - CMG Sports
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