STAGS rugby coach Dave Hewett is aiming to carry a bigger group of contracted players this year in an attempt to build more depth and competition in certain positions.
The former All Black prop is in his first year as coach of the Southland Mitre 10 Cup rugby team and is currently putting together the jigsaw puzzle that is his 2018 squad.
Southland has traditionally contracted about 27 or 28 players, but Hewett is keen to bump that number up to 30 this year.
It has meant some juggling to ensure Rugby Southland still remained within its budget requirements.
However, Hewett felt the extra couple of players would help build much-needed depth.
Three months out from the Mitre 10 Cup season, Hewett said there were about five spots still to be filled.
The preference was to select from local club rugby, but he conceded there were some positions which might need bolstering with players from outside the province.
The balancing act for Hewett is to provide Southland club rugby players with enough time to state their case, but also not let slip of any potential prospects from outside the province.
He was comfortable where they were at across most positions, but he indicated depth in the midfield and the outside back department might need bolstering.
Prop was another area where depth could be an issue, simply because of the specialist nature of the position, Hewett said.
The expected news that long-serving Stags No 8 Elliot Dixon had signed to play in Japan was confirmed on Monday, ruling him out of any possible return to the Southland jersey this year.
Hewett admitted it was a big loss and they had already been searching for options to try and fill the void.
Southland is well off in regards to traditional openside flankers, but Hewett said it was important they got the loose forward mix right.
He indicated there was a spot still to be filled with a player who could operate on the blindside flank and also cover lock.
A wider-squad of between 20 and 30 players has been training each week in the build up to the season, mainly under the tutelage of assistant coach Jason Kawau and strength and conditioning coach Shaun Curry.
Hewett said there had been improvement in the fitness stakes, which was what he was searching for at this stage of preparations.
In terms of club rugby, he was also happy with what he had seen.
“You get all these descriptions as to what it is like, but I actually think the quality of club rugby has been quite good, from what I have seen both live and on video.
“Like all around the country, when you get fatigue later on and reserves come on it can get a bit messy, but I’ve been happy with the quality of it.
“I will temper that a bit by saying Mitre 10 Cup is a big step up from club rugby and we do need to be wary of that.”
Hewett has cast the net wide this year, inviting players from division one club rugby to also put their hand up in Stags testing.
He said it had uncovered some “nuggets” in promising prospects, but there was still work to do to get them up to Mitre 10 Cup level and it might not not be this year when they got their chance.