Monday, 12 August 2013

ITM Cup: A Beginner's Point Of View. Preview

Never heard of the ITM Cup you say? Never fear, this beginner's guide will be with you throughout the season telling you everything you need to know.

The ITM Cup is New Zealand's club tournament, and I think it's fair to say it's the world's leading club tournament in the world. It's the equivalent of Ireland's UBL championship, except that it creates a lot more attention, and their Super Rugby and international stars want to play for their club team.

ITM Cup is the competition that Ireland plucked Michael Bent from, while international squad members Francis Saili, Charles Piutau and Franka Halai were unknowns in the competition last year.

The regard that is held for the ITM Cup is huge, with Australian players signing up to play (Paul Alo-Emile, young Rebels prop) and Benji Marshall, fresh from his switch from League, eager to get some action.

Background

The ITM Cup in it's current format is entering it's 8th season, with 14 teams from the North and South Islands of New Zealand. With the remaining 12 teams playing in the Heartland Championship. In 2013, the ITM Cup has 2 Divisions - the Premiership and the Championship. Each Division has seven teams in it.
Within this framework there is a unique format whereby teams will play all other teams in their own Division as well as four of the teams from the other Division. This means that over a nine week period, each team will play 10 games. This keeps up some of the long established, traditional provincial rivalries. Eg. In 2013, Auckland (North Island) will play Manawatu, North Harbour, Northland (North Island) and Otago (South Island). In fact, North Harbour, Northland and Auckland are in the North West point of the Northern Island.

Points are awarded similar to the majority of Rugby competitions, with 4 points for a win, and a bonus point system in place. As with most competitions, a 4 team playoff occurs at the end of the regular season in each division to determine a winner.

The 2013 competition sees Counties Manukau promoted to the Premiership after winning the Championship final in 2012, and Hawke's Bay relegated to the Championship. Canterbury are the holders of the Premiership.

Ranfurly Shield

The ITM Cup also features within it another arguably more prestigious trophy, the Ranfurly Shield. The Ranfurly Shield, also known as the "Log o' Wood", is perhaps the most prestigious trophy in New Zealand's domestic rugby union competition. First presented to Auckland in 1902, the Ranfurly Shield is based on a challenge system, rather than a league or knockout competition as with most football trophies. The holding union must defend the Shield in challenge matches, and if a challenger defeats them, they become the new holder of the Shield. The Shield holder at the end of each season is required to accept at least seven challenges for the following year. All home games during league play, but not during knockout playoffs, in the ITM Cup are automatic challenges. The remaining shield defences must be made up of challenges from unions in the other domestic competition.The Shield is currently held by Waikato who won it from Taranaki in the 12th round of the Round Robin in the2012 ITM Cup.

The season's first Ranfurly Shield challenge will see the Northland Taniwha have the first tilt at wrestling 'the Log o' Wood' off the summer guardians, the Waikato Mooloos.

If Waikato retain their hold on the Shield they will face challenges from Northland (Week 1), Otago (Week 2), Auckland (Week 5), Wellington (Week 7) and the ultimate derby match against Taranaki, the team that handed the Shield to Waikato, in Week 9.

Premiership

Canterbury are the holders, and the hot favourites to retain their title. While other teams will be shorn of their international stars during the early parts of the competition, Canterbury will still have the likes of Joe Moody, Corey Flynn, Dominic Bird, George, Luke and Adam Whitelock, Colin Slade and Johnny McNicholl amongst others. Matt Todd was unlikely to miss on international selection, while Nasi Manu and Jordan Taufua and young wingers Belgium Tuatagaloa and Milford Keresoma are worth keeping an eye out for.

Key Player: George Whitelock
One to Watch: Jordan Taufua

Wellington are expected to be a strong challenger, who are also left relatively intact following the New Zealand squad announcement. Ardie Savea, Jeffrey Toomuga Allen, Victor Vito, Brad Shields, Charlie Ngatai, Alpati Leiua and Hosea Gear featuring for a strong team. Wellington possibly have the most balanced team, with Vito eager to make up for missing out on New Zealand selection, they could be worth a bet.

Key Player: Victor Vito
One to Watch: Lima Sopoaga

Auckland are fresh off an impressive season by the Blues, Auckland are an exciting young team that will go far. Peter Saili and Luke Braid will be vital, while they are backed up by promising youngsters Angus Ta'avo and Ofa Tu'ungafasi up front, with Simon Hickey (U-20), Hadleigh Parkes, George Moala and Lolagi Visinia expected to provide the thrust in the backline. Also featuring is Under 20 blindside flanker Joseph Edwards who made my team of the Tournament

Key Player: Luke Braid
One to Watch: Joseph Edwards

Waikato are lower down on the list of likely challengers, but have enough talent to cause teams problems. Paul Alo-Emile, Ben Tameifuna and Toby Smith will fight it out for the two prop positions, while Matt Van Leven and Jack Lam will need big performances if Waikato are to continue the success from the Chiefs. Sam Christie of the Western Force and Tim Mikkelson of NZ Sevens legendary feature in the backline, while Marty Holah and Brendon Leonard are including in the wider training squad.

Key Player: Jack Lam
One to Watch: Ben Tameifuna

Counties Manukau are another team capable of springing surprises, with Hika Elliott, Fritz Lee, Augustine Pulu, Baden Kerr, Frank Halai and Bunde Aki in their ranks. Much could depend on when Tim Nanai Williams returns from injury.

Key Player: Baden Kerr
One to Watch: Rey Lee-Lo

Taranaki should be safe from relegation in a team featuring Chris King, the promising Rhys Marshall, Kane Barrett and Jarrad Hoeata up front, with Jamison Gibson Park, Waisake Naholo, Kurt Baker (another 7s star) and Andre Taylor in the backline. They will be further boosted when Beauden Barrett comes back from internationals and James Marshall comes back from injury.

Key Player: Jarrad Hoeata
One to Watch: Rhys Marshall / Andre Taylor / Jamison Gibson Park

Bay Of Plenty will struggle this year, in a team lacking upcoming youngsters or any established talent. Everything will rest on Tanerau Latimer and Chris Noakes.

Key Player: Tanerau Latimer
One to Watch: Nathan Harris

Championship

The Championship is not without it's talent, and will be worth keeping an eye on, if not for exciting talent from this years Under 20s, then for some exciting combinations like Rene Ranger and Rupeni Caucau combining in midfield for Northland.

Here are the best of the Championship:

Southland Notable Players:
Super rugby regulars: Jamie Mackintosh, Josh Bekhuis, Elliot Dixon, John Hardie, Robbie Robinson
Upcoming: Taylor Adams (scrumhalf),

Northland
Super: Ranger, Caucau, Bronson Murray

Otago:
Super: Tom Donnelly, Ezra Taylor, Liam Coltman, Fumiaki Tanaka, Hayden Parker, Buston Popoali'i
Upcoming: TJ Ioane, Michael Collins (inside centre), Fa'asiu Fuatai (Winger) , Teihorangi Walden (Centre)

North Harbour
Super: Ben Afeaki, Bryn Hall, James Parsons
Upcoming: Sione Mafileo (Lock), Jordan Manihero (Flanker)

Tasman
Super: George Stowers, Quentin McDonald, Tim Perry, Tom Marshall

Manawatu:
Super: Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Michael Fitzgerald
Upcoming: Jason Emery, Ma'afu Fia, Nic Stirzaker, Jade Te Rure (Outhalf)

Hawke's Bay
Super: Ged Robinson, Ash Dixon, Brendon O'Connor, Karl Lowe, Alby Mathewson, Zac Guildford, Andrew Horrell
Irish: Max Lahiff
Upcoming: Telusa Veainu, Gillies Kaka, Trinity Spooner Nera

Where to watch: 
Sky Sports will have all the games live, their coverage starts on Friday at 8.35am

Superbru:
For those who find following along is better if there's something to play for, join the SuperBru pool 

http://www.superbru.com/itmcup/pool.php?p=11111186
Pool name: World In Union 

Pool code: cutenear