Surf Lifesaving: Competition-toughened athletes back for provinces

There is a strong trans-Tasman flavour to the eight provincial surf lifesaving teams named today for the surf league in Mt Maunganui on February 7-8.

While all are New Zealanders, 20 of the 104 athletes have based themselves in Australia during the pre-season to take advantage of the competition on offer there.

With athletes like three-time national ironman champion Daniel Moodie, of Hawke's Bay, sprinters Paul Cracroft-Wilson, of Taranaki, and Wellington's Ben Willis, the scene is set for a dramatic showdown.

"We've never had this many surf athletes based in Australia before, where the training and weekly competition is so much more intense," Surf Lifesaving New Zealand sport manager Mark Weatherall said.

"They're all returning to test themselves in Mt Maunganui and they're likely to lift the standard several notches."

Cracroft-Wilson this month won the lucrative Ocean Assault beach flags title in Queensland and will lead a strong Taranaki team hunting their first surf league title.

The closest the province has come in the 15-year history of the event was a pair of second placings, in 2002 and 2006, but they have been given a huge boost with the inclusion of New Zealand captain Glenn Anderson.

Anderson is bidding for an extraordinary treble, having won the last two titles with Gisborne in 2007 and Bay of Plenty last year.

Now the coach of the New Plymouth Old Boys club, he and Australian-based talent Daniel Nelson will be strong contenders in the men's ironman.

Two other perennial favourites, three-time winners Gisborne and four-time champions Auckland, also have strong teams.

Orewa teenagers Teneale Hatton and Rachel Clarke have been performing brilliantly in Queensland over the past three months, while world champion IRB driver Danny Morrison is back for another campaign.

Gisborne will be led again by board supremo Matt Sutton and ironwoman Madison Boon, while Midway brothers Dan and Mike Janes have been based at the strong Kurrawa club on the Gold Coast since the end of last season.

Otago return to surf league competition after missing last year, boasting top New Zealand butterfly swimmer and national surf representative Andy McMillan in their lineup.

Brothers Mike and Sam Kinraid will lead the southerners' IRB hopes while they have also fared well in the draft, picking up current national women's beach sprint champion Arna Wright, of Mt Maunganui, and Mairangi Bay ironwoman Bailey Elliott.

Four-time champions Canterbury will look to 32-year-old sprinter Morgan Foster, who has enjoyed success this season in the Ocean Assault series in Queensland, while the Julian brothers, Simon and John, will command the IRB.

Bay of Plenty are likely to be in a rebuilding phase after winning last year, although New Zealand squad members Johanna O'Connor, Chelsea Maples and Andrew Newton will ensure they are competitive.

Wellington's chances hinge on the success of world beach flags champion Ben Willis and his New Zealand teammate Steven Kent, while Hawke's Bay's Moodie is unbeaten over the ironman distance in the last two surf leagues.

His provincial teammate Nikki Cox, who won the board race at last year's world championships, is also favoured in the ironwoman competition.

The two-day event will feature 17 events a day, with under-19 athletes competing on Mt Maunganui's Main Beach in the morning and senior athletes doing battle in the afternoon.