The Waikato rugby team will take on Heartland Championship provinces Thames Valley, King Country and Wanganui in pre-season Ranfurly Shield challenges later this year.
Wanganui gains a mandatory shield challenge as the current holders of the Meads Cup and will play Waikato for the third time in Ranfurly Shield rugby, while neighbouring unions Thames Valley and King Country will challenge Waikato for the shield for a fifth time.
The first challenge for 2016 will be against Thames Valley at Paeroa Domain on Queen's Birthday Weekend (Monday 6 June). This will be followed by King Country at Bedford Park in Matamata on Saturday 30 July and Wanganui on Saturday 6 August (venue TBC) as part of Waikato's Mitre 10 Cup pre-season campaign.
None of the three challenging provinces have managed to lift the Ranfurly Shield in their history. Thames Valley last had a challenge in 2014 against Counties Manukau, while King Country and Wanganui's last attempt was against Taranaki in 2012.
WRU General Manager Blair Foote, who played for Thames Valley against Waikato in the 1994 Ranfurly Shield match before his 17 games for Waikato in 1995-97, said the Waikato Rugby Union is delighted to be able to take the Ranfurly Shield to communities both in and out of the Waikato province.
"It is great we have the chance to take the Ranfurly Shield on the road for the match in Paeroa. We look forward to sharing the experience with our neighbours Thames Valley," Foote said.
"Matamata is a proud Waikato rugby town and we are very excited about holding a shield challenge there. We know the town will come out in force to support the match and experience the unique occasion."
"These matches will also be a great experience for our players and give us a chance to prepare for the Mitre 10 Cup season with competitive first class rugby."
The Waikato Rugby Union is still in the process of confirming a third venue for the Wanganui match on August 6 and an announcement on the location of that fixture is expected within the next month.
Should Waikato retain the Ranfurly Shield through the pre-season they are scheduled to face challenges from North Harbour, Manawatu, Taranaki, Canterbury and Hawke's Bay, in that order, during the 2016 Mitre 10 Cup.