As the countdown to the Lion Foundation Surf League begins, Bay of Plenty's surf lifesaving depth is set to be sorely tested.
After waiting 11 seasons to end its title drought this year, the defending champions have been struggling with numbers _ Saturday's pre-season carnival at Waihi Beach was more a case of who wasn't there among thin open fields.
New Bay coach Paul Kayes has to submit a first draft of his 13-strong squad to organisers this week and he admits there are a few holes to fill.
"We won't have Glenn Anderson again and Nathan Henderson has also indicated he'll be unavailable but I'll take whoever is available on the day and do my best with them. In some ways, it makes it a lot easier because we know exactly who we've got and who we don't have and we can build from there," Kayes said.
Australian-based Henderson is saving his transtasman trip to compete at the national championships in March, while New Zealand captain Anderson has taken a job as the coach of New Plymouth Old Boys and is likely to compete for Taranaki.
Also missing from Saturday's carnival were Auckland-based Bay athletes Lisa Carrington, Jamiee Lovett, Danelle Snowden and Johanna O'Connor, while Arna Wright and Chelsea Maples are in Australia at present.
It was left to last year's under-19 captain Katrina Madill (Mount Maunganui) to showcase her rising talent in the open grade, while the men's ironman turned into a dramatic sprint-finish win for her clubmate Andrew Newton.
Newton has been competing in the Ocean Assault series in Queensland for the last month, narrowly missing finals in the board race, but needed a strong final ski leg to haul in another under-19 star, Papamoa's Logan Walsh. Kayes, meanwhile, has taken on the Bay job in a caretaker/development role after last year's coach Ben Fuller shifted overseas.
"I'll feel the pressure on the day I suppose but it's no use worrying about it now," Kayes said. "We can't access the draft and, in my first year at the open level, while it would be bloody nice to defend the title, there's a reduction of pressure because we've lost some key guys."
He's tipping Anderson's Taranaki team as a warm favourite for February's Surf League, while Auckland and Gisborne should also have strong teams.