Stars return to Counties
ITM Cup unions; brace yourselves, the Counties Manukau machine is coming.
Dave Rennie's champion Chiefs will provide five strike weapons in Tim Nanai-Williams, Bundee Aki, August Pulu, Fritz Lee and Mahonri Schwalger.
New Zealand conference-leading Blues Frank Halai, Baden Kerr and Ronald Raaymakers will also return to ECOLight Stadium, as will Ray Lee-Lo (Hurricanes) and Jimmy Tupou (Crusaders).
Meanwhile, seven Counties players have spent the year toiling away in Rennie's development squad, playing matches against the Blues development as well as Tonga and Samoa's respective B teams.
Securing the Championship title in his first year at the helm, head coach Umaga, and assist Steve Jackson, recommitted their services late last year.
"I'm going to be doing my time here for as long as I can ... there's still a lot of work to do here," Umaga told Sportal last October.
"I'd like to think that we can stay up and really compete in the Premiership; we've seen what happened to Hawke's Bay when they were promoted and we don't want to do that.
"It will take a bit of planning, some hard work and hopefully we can get it done."
Proud to see six of his players debut in Super Rugby, Umaga is wary that it could hinder his plans to implement an expansive game plan over a compacted two-month campaign.
"You don't know what kind of condition they are going to come back in with injuries and so on," he added.
Aware of the potential for player burnout, Umaga has put more emphasis on development at grass roots level within the province.
His labour has already begun to bear fruit as the Counties Manukau B side won it's competition, the Coronation Cup, for the first time in the union's history.
"This union, in depth and rugby-wise, is in a good place for the first time in a long time," he said.
At an administrative level, the Steelers declared an $86,000 surplus for 2012 - a 14 percent from the previous year.
At a recent AGM it was also announced the union will reintroduce a women's team and play host to an international Black Ferns test against England later this year.
"We remain grateful to our sponsors, the community and the CMRFU team, for helping us turn the Union around," CEO Andrew Maddock said.
"Most people now understand that it is a continual process that requires long term commitment.
"The success of the Steelers lead by Tana Umaga and Steve Jackson has provided pathways for our players to receive high honours."
The Steelers will open the ITM Cup season when they host Wellington on August 15.