Season preview: 2014 ITM Cup
James Mortimer 14 Aug 2014 Getty Images
No longer is the second division split between the North and South Island winners (as it was with the Naki and the green and blacks back then), a setup that lasted until 1984, while the three divisions of the now defunct National Provincial Championship lasted until 2005.
From 2006 a similar format to what we have today was put into place with the creation of the Heartland Championship, while from 2011 the ITM Cup’s 14 unions split into two new categories: the top flight Premiership and the lower tier Championship.
And as it has been for the last six years, Canterbury is the team to beat.
The red and black machine has been nigh on unstoppable in recent seasons, creating history last year to become the first team in a major rugby competition to win six straight titles.
Toulouse, Leicester Tigers and Western Province have all come close – the South Africans have twice claimed five consecutive Currie Cup titles – but never has a senior provincial team achieved the feats of the reigning ITM Cup champions.
The loss of Corey Flynn (Toulouse), George Whitelock (Panasonic Wild Knights) and Jordan Taufua (Counties) is a blow as is the absence of a bevy of All Blacks, but long has Canterbury been accustomed to operating without marquee players.
Coach Scott Robertson has taken over what seems to be a peerless system, but to suggest the title holders are invincible is fraught with danger.
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FLASHBACK: South Island dominance
While Canterbury’s 11 crowns moves them closer to Auckland’s record of 16, a mark that many thought would never be threatened, some other traditional big names might have something to say.
Wellington were the top of the table finishers after the ITM Cup Premiership regular season last year, beaten only by Hawke’s Bay, and they reached their fifth decider in eight years but continue to be without the major.
Chris Boyd, who will mentor the Hurricanes next season, knows he has the squad to go all the way, even if there have been early setbacks – the absence of players like Jeffrey Toomaga-Allen, Ardie Savea and Riki Flutey will disrupt the potency of the squad.
Auckland, along with the men from the capital the only side to defeat the red and blacks during the regular season last year, also looked likely to be successful in 2013, equalling Canterbury with seven four-try bonus points.
However the balance of power was almost embarrassingly reinstated with the champions taking apart the blue and whites 56-26 in the semi-final, while Wellington defeated last season’s surprise packets Counties-Manukau 41-10 in the other clash of the last four.
Under former All Blacks coach Tana Umaga the Steelers have been a revelation.
Not content with taking the Ranfurly Shield, now successfully defended five times, Counties reached the semi-finals of the Premiership confirming their position as one of the top four provincial unions in New Zealand.
Waikato, 2006 champions and runners-up in 2010 and 2011, managed to embarrass Auckland with a 42-24 victory last year during week five, but the Mooloo men finished fifth overall and managed just four wins from ten matches.
Meanwhile Taranaki, who finished in the top four during the 2012 ITM Cup season, closed out their campaign last year sixth, a disappointing return for a side that during that time had held the Ranfurly Shield for seven defences.
The Steelers, now holders after a remarkable year that saw Otago, Hawke’s Bay and then Counties take the famous Log o’Wood, will defend the Shield for the first time during the season in week two – remarkably against the blue and gold from the Deep South.
Bay of Plenty, bottom placed finishers in the Premiership last year, will enter the Championship.
Tasman, who conquered Hawke’s Bay, Southland (both twice), Counties, Otago, Waikato, Taranaki, Manawatu – enter the top flight in 2014.
Otago, who briefly held the Shield and finished second overall in the Championship last season, have a noted and inspirational coach in Tony Brown, he and the supporters will be confident of mounting a challenge to return to the top level.
Hawke’s Bay and Southland rounded out the semi-finalists last year, and there is little to suggest that they won’t feature in the knockout stages against this campaign.
Manawatu, Northland and North Harbour might have something to say about affairs, even if the three brought up the tail end of the Championship table just 12 months ago.
The ITM Cup Social Media list to end all ITM Cup Social Media lists:
(with thanks to Mark and the team at http://socialg.uy)
Hawke's Bay #HBY
Bay of Plenty #BOP
https://twitter.com/BaySteamers #bayproud #steamteam
North Harbour #NHR
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