ITM Cup
Who can stop Canterbury juggernaut?
August 15, 2013
The ITM Cup captains line-up for the traditional group photo, Auckland, New Zealand, August 6, 2013
Who will be standing proud at season's end? © Getty Images
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New Zealand's rugby provinces face a tough task to deny Canterbury a sixth successive ITM Cup victory, with the men wearing red-and-black the standard-bearers once again in the competition that kicks off this week.

Aside from a change of coach, where former All Blacks flanker Scott Robertson succeeds Tabai Matson, Canterbury will field the bulk of the side that extended their streak to a record five titles last year.

ITM Cup Facts and Figures

  • Premiership teams: Canterbury (1st last year), Auckland (2nd), Wellington (3rd), Taranaki (4th), Waikato (5th), Bay of Plenty (6th), Counties Manukau (promoted from Championship).
  • Championship teams: Hawke's Bay (relegated from Premiership), Otago (2nd), Tasman (3rd), Southland (4th), Northland (5th), Manawatu (6th), North Harbour (7th).
  • Most titles: 16: Auckland, 10: Canterbury, 4: Wellington, 2: Otago, Waikato, 1: Bay of Plenty, Counties Manukau, Manawatu.
  • Last Seven Finals
  • 2012: Canterbury 31 Auckland 18
  • 2011: Canterbury 12 Waikato 3
  • 2010: Canterbury 33 Waikato 13
  • 2009: Canterbury 28 Wellington 20
  • 2008: Canterbury 7 Wellington 6
  • 2007: Auckland 23 Wellington 14
  • 2006: Waikato 37 Wellington 31

Robertson will face his biggest challenge in the early rounds, when nearly half of his power-packed 38-man squad will be unavailable. Eight players are on All Blacks duty and probably won't be seen all season, but nine more are injured while another handful must be managed carefully as they are still feeling the effects of the Crusaders' Super Rugby campaign.

Captain George Whitelock, the only player involved in all five winning campaigns, stands among the players who must be handled with care. He is the no-nonsense forward that other provinces struggle to produce with the same regularity as the champions, who hit their stride last year to overwhelm Taranaki in the semi-finals and Auckland in the Premiership division final.

Another rapid-fire season, ending in late October, will see round-robin matches played from Wednesday to Sunday over the next nine weeks.

The opening match of the season sees Wellington host newly promoted Counties Manukau in a clash of two Premiership teams on Thursday. Counties Manukau earned a place among the top seven sides by winning the second-tier Championship division last year under coach Tana Umaga. But like the Crusaders, they will also be without several injured Super Rugby players, including Chiefs trio Tim Nanai-Williams, Augustine Pulu and Mahonri Schwalger.

Ranfurly Shield holders Waikato, 16-time champions Auckland and 2012 beaten semi-finalists Wellington and Taranaki all boast Premiership play-off potential but Bay of Plenty may struggle to overcome the loss of flanker Luke Braid to Auckland and of playmaker Chris Noakes to a season-ending injury.

Demoted Hawke's Bay are among the strongest of seven teams in the Championship, along with 2012 runners-up Otago, whose young side impressed with their expansive style. South Island rivals Tasman and Southland reached the semi-finals last year while Northland, Manawatu and wooden-spooners North Harbour will all be seeking better results.

© AAP

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