Stage set for latest provincial battle
July 28, 2010
Captains pose with ITM Cup trophy, North Harbour Stadium, Auckland, New Zealand, July 23, 2010
North Harbour's Michael Reid, Auckland's Daniel Braid, Northland's Jared Payne and Counties Manukau's Jamie Chipman pose during the 2010 ITM Cup season launch © Getty Images

An unprecedented mid-table clamour looms in New Zealand's ITM Cup starting this week but there should be more certainty at the top of the standings.

Two-time defending champions Canterbury and perennial bridesmaids Wellington stand out like beacons to contest another provincial final, such is the class and depth in their squads. Those teams have met in the last two finals and it will take something special to prevent them qualifying for the semifinals in late October, before a probable partnering up in the big dance on November 5.

Even more unlikely is the trophy going beyond a Super Rugby base, with a rejuvenated Auckland and Waikato carrying the next-best credentials. Southland and Hawke's Bay have been semi-final fixtures in recent times although they have forged a reputation for folding when the business-end torch is applied.

It's just below the top-four where things get interesting, all because the New Zealand Rugby Union has finally got serious about reducing the number of teams in the top competition.

The 2011 structure will consist of a top-seven premiership and a bottom-seven championship, with automatic promotion and relegation between the competitions taking place over subsequent seasons. The makeup of those divisions will be determined by this year's finishing order, adding extra spice as teams will be desperate for a top-seven spot.

Rob Penney's Canterbury are sure to be there, despite their traditional swag of off-season farewells. Any other team losing the likes of Casey Laulala, Tim Bateman, Tyson Keats, Michael Paterson and Ti'i Paulo plus the service of numerous world class All Blacks forwards would struggle but the red and blacks are sure to morph into top contenders.

Most of their new strike power is in the midfield, where league superstar Sonny Bill Williams and Wellington powerhouse Robbie Fruean will be handfuls behind a youthful pack. For sheer backline talent, it's hard to go past Wellington, who have lost the six finals they have reached in the last seven years.

Coach Jamie Joseph or his successor -- Joseph is widely tipped to shortly leave the province to sign with the Highlanders -- will have a devilish time choosing who to omit from the outside division. Wingers Hosea Gear and Julian Savea, the latter a standout at the under-20 World Cup, should provide the finishing touches while the forwards have a distinctly Hurricanes feel, led by skipper Rodney So'oialo.

Newcomers abound in the Auckland and Waikato squads, who were fifth and sixth respectively last year. Auckland welcome back former stalwarts in flanker Daniel Braid, fullback Brent Ward and centre Ben Atiga while Matt Berquist and Toby Morland bring depth to the halves.

Exciting ACT Brumbies inside back Christian Lealiifano is the most interesting new recruit at Waikato, who have good depth but must overcome the loss of key forwards Sione Lauaki and Kevin O'Neill. Southland have retained most of last year's heroic Ranfurly Shield-lifters. The ability of rising first five-eighth Robbie Robinson to spark their attack could be decisive.

Hawke's Bay are chasing a fourth successive slot in the semis but must overcome a sizeable departure list. They'll also have less access this season to gamebreakers Israel Dagg and Zac Guildford due to their All Blacks promotions, although former league flyer Luke Rooney is a fascinating arrival in their place.

Teams expected to be at the heart of the mid-table stoush are Bay of Plenty, Taranaki, North Harbour, Otago and Tasman. Looking distinctly stronger are Bay of Plenty, who will hope first five-eighth Mike Delany can be the same influence as last year behind a potent-looking front eight.

Disturbingly, Taranaki have finished eighth in each of the last three seasons. They kicked a competition-record 40 penalties last year but returning coach Colin Cooper has snared some handy attacking backs in Andre Taylor and Kurt Baker from Manawatu while captain Craig Clarke is at the heart of a typically gritty pack.

Like several teams, North Harbour are bolstered by a smattering of the world champion under-20 New Zealand side. They lose outside men Anthony Tuitavake and Rudi Wulf overseas, leaving unwanted All Black Luke McAlister as a pivotal performer.

New Otago coach Phil Mooney has a big job restoring the province's pride, with flankers Adam Thomson and Alando Soakai important figures if they are to improve on some lacklustre seasons of late.

Tasman may struggle to match last year's feisty campaign, having lost key halfback Kahn Fotuali'i to Hawke's Bay and a handful of forwards. New captain Chris Jack will provide crucial experience.

It is hard to see Northland, Manawatu or Counties Manukau threatening although the trio are without the pressure of demotion to the Heartland Championship that has dogged them in recent seasons.

Northland have a strengthened squad and can call on Lachie Munro and David Holwell as proven playmakers although the long-term injury loss of flanker Joel McKenty will hurt.

Manawatu have been stripped of some exciting backline talent although first five-eighth Aaron Cruden is still on board and the pack has a rugged appearance. Former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga made headlines with his return to play and act as assistant coach for the struggling Counties-Manukau although it's hard to see even him ending their on-field struggles.

For the first round of fixtures Canterbury are without Robbie Robbie Fruean for their clash with Hawke's Bay in Christchurch on Friday. Medical staff identified an irregular heart beat (arrhythmia) when assessing Freuan on Monday. Fruean's absence has forced a backline shuffle that sees Ryan Crotty and Stephen Brett start out one place wider than usual at centre and second five-eighth. Colin Slade will wear No 10.

Canterbury are missing seven players on All Blacks duty, along with an injured group - Fruean, No 8 Nasi Manu (knee), halfback Andy Ellis (toe), midfield back Adam Whitelock (concussion) and midfield backs Sonny Bill Williams (knee) and Adam Whitelock (concussion). Hawke's Bay include All Blacks winger Zac Guilford and Australian fullback Luke Rooney.

Nick Crosswel will skipper Manawatu against Southland at Palmerston North on Saturday. He will line-up in their backrow alongside Mitchell Crosswell and Doug Tietjens while Southland name the exciting Robbie Robinson at fullback rather than fly-half.

Former All Black Tana Umaga has recovered from a bout of flu to be named in the Counties Manukau team to face Otago at Pukekohe on Saturday. The Counties Manukau assistant coach joins New Zealand sevens flyer Sherwin Stowers and rising 20-year-old Ahsee Tuala in the starting line-up. Otago coach Phil Mooney names the experienced Adam Thomson and Kees Meeuw in his pack.

Waikato will open their national provincial rugby championship campaign on Saturday against Bay of Plenty in Hamilton without former All Blacks first five-eighth Stephen Donald. Still recovering from a chest injury, Donald is joined on the injured list by flanker Zak Hohneck (concussion) and Ben May (back injury). One-test All Blacks winger Lelia Masaga is on the bench for the Bay of Penty again after his summer move, while Colin Bourke captains the side.

National provincial championship rugby records:

Season records:
Most points (team) - 521. Otago, 1998
Most points (player) - 196. Tony Brown (Otago) 1998
Most tries (team) - 70. Auckland, 1994
Most tries (player) - 15. Terry Wright (Auckland) 1984; Brendan Laney (Otago) 1998
Most conversions - 46. Canterbury 2001
Most penalty goals - 40. Taranaki 2009


Northland: Aaron Bancroft, Sam Barker, Dean Budd, Mark Burman, Rhyan Caine, Adam Clarke, Matt Clutterbuck, Tim Dow, Cameron Eyre, Paea Fa'anunu, Brook Gilmore, Cameron Goodhue, Roy Griffin, Iwi Hauraki, Luke Hamilton, David Holwell, Mateo Malupo, Joel McKenty, Lachie Munro, Simon Munro, Bronson Murray, Brock Mustard, Pat O'Connor, Jared Payne (captain), Rene Ranger, Mikaele Tuu'u, Matt Wallis, Ross Wright

Coach - Bryce Woodward

North Harbour: Ben Afeaki, James Afoa, Ben Botica, Tom Chamberlain, Alipate Fatafehi, Michael Farmer, James King, Michael Harris, Grayson Hart, Manu Leiataua, Mathew Luamanu, Michael Mayhew, Richard Mayhew, Luke McAlister, Jack McPhee, James Parson, Filo Paulo, Ken Pisi, Malakai Ravulo, Michael Reid (captain), Chris Smylie, Jack Tarrant, Nalu Tuigamala, Nafi Tuitavake, Scott Uren, Brendon Watt, William Whetton, Josh York

Coach - Craig Dowd

Auckland: Ben Atiga, Onosa'i Auva'a, Matt Berquist, Daniel Braid, Ash Dixon, Charlie Faumuina, Kurtis Haiu, Brenton Helleur, Jamie Helleur, Chris Lowrey, Tevita Mailau, Pauliasi Manu, Tom McCartney, Ash Moeke, Liaki Moli, Toby Morland, Atieli Pakalani, Charles Piutau, Sean Polwart, Chay Raui, Peter Saili, Winston Stanley, Dave Thomas, Andrew Van der Heijden, Brent Ward

Coach - Mark Anscombe

Counties-Manukau: Jamie Chipman, Dean Cummins, Graham Dewes, Jeremiah Fatialofa, Viliami Fihaki, Samisoni Fisilau, DJ Forbes, Grant Henson, Baden Kerr, Fritz Lee, Ray Lee-lo, Simon Lemalu, Ilaisa Ma'asi, Tim Nanai-Williams, Jono Owen, Siale Piutau, August Pulu, Ronald Raaymakers, David Raikuna, Mark Selwyn, Waka Setitaia, Sherwin Stowers, Seremaia Tagicakibau, Ahsee Tuala, Taiasina Tuifua, Tana Umaga

Coach - Milton Haig

Waikato: Sosene Anesi, Alex Bradley, Aled de Malmanch, Stephen Donald, Hikairo Forbes, Romana Graham, Frank Halai, Zak Hohneck, Vern Kamo, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Jack Lam, Brendan Leonard, Christian Lealiifano, Toby Lynn, Ben May, Tim Mikkelson, Chris Middleton, Trent Renata, Steven Setephano, Toby Smith, Henry Speight, Dwayne Sweeney, Save Tokula, Dominiko Waqaniburotu, Nathan White (captain), Jackson Willison

Matt Vant Leven

Coach - Chris Gibbes

Bay of Plenty: James McGougan, Joe Savage, Josh Hohneck, Tristan Moran, Daniel Perrin, John Pareanga, Cullum Rettalick, John Moore, Luke Andrews, Colin Bourke (captain) Luke Braid, Sam Cane, Solomon King, Tanerau Latimer, Josh Hall, Dan Waenga, Mike Delany, Nick McCashin, Brett Mather, Cory Aporo, Grant McQuoid, Phil Burleigh, Ben Smith, Jason Hona, Lance MacDonald, Leilia Masaga, Toby Arnold.

Coach - Sean Horan

Taranaki: Kurt Baker, Beauden Barrett, Kane Barrett, Michael Bent, James Broadhurst, Carl Carmichael, Craig Clarke (captain), Shane Cleaver, Laurence Corlett, Brett Goodin, Jayden Hayward, Jarrad Hoeata, Scott Ireland, Tyson Keats, Sione Lea, Kylem O'Donnell, George Pisi, Leon Power, Cody Rei, Willie Rickards, Willie Ripia, David Smith, Ben Souness, Andre Taylor, Blade Thomson, Isaia Tuifua, Timo Tutavaha, Samuela Vunisa, Scott Waldrom, Chris Walker, Johnny Willis

Coach - Colin Cooper

Hawke's Bay: Trent Boswell-Wakefieldm, Richard Buckman, Mike Coman, Israel Dagg, Chris Eaton, Hika Elliot, Bryn Evans, Kahn Fotuali'i, Zac Guildford, Andrew Horrell, Mark Jackman, Michael Johnson, Gillies Kaka, Ross Kennedy, Josh Keys, Dan Kirkpatrick, Kas Lealamanua, Karl Lowe, Ryan McLeod, Clint Newland, Anthony Perenise, Leighton Price, Luke Rooney, Jason Shoemark (captain), Eugene Smith, Star Timu, Grant Webb

Coach - Peter Russell

Manawatu: Francis Bryant, Karl Bryson, Craig Clare, Tomasi Cama, Mitchell Crosswell, Nick Crosswell, Aaron Cruden, Ma'afu Fia, Michael Fitzgerald, Rob Foreman, Callum Gibbins, Hamish Gosling, Karl Haitana, Bertus Mulder, Sean O'Connor, James Oliver, Shannon Paku, Hadleigh Parkes, Grant Polson, Lote Raikabula, Reece Robinson, Aaron Smith, Casey Stone, Fraser Stone, Tevita Taufui, Isaac Thompson, Doug Tietjens, Asaeli Tikorotuma

Coach - Dave Rennie

Wellington: Adrian Barone, Dane Coles, Hayden Cripps, Jacob Ellison, Fa'atonu Fili, Scott Fuglistaller, Hosea Gear, Michael Hobbs, Cory Jane, Alapati Leiua, Faifili Levave, Serge Lilo, Alby Mathewson, Motu Matu'u, Api Naikatini, Charlie Ngatai, Ma'a Nonu, Buxton Popoalii, Daniel Ramsay, Mark Reddish, Ged Robinson, Julian Savea, John Schwalger, Conrad Smith, Rodney So'oialo, (captain), Lima Sopoaga, Apoua Stewart, David Te Moana, Jeremy Thrush, Neemia Tialata, Ruki Tipuna, Shaun Treeby, Victor Vito, Piri Weepu

Coach - Jamie Joseph

Tasman: Jarrod Aberhart, Shane Christie, Ben Coman, Anthony Elisala, Vernon Fredericks, Glen Gregory, Chris Jack (captain), Huia Tevita Koloamatangi, Poutasi Luafutu, Quentin MacDonald, Fai Mika, Craig Moore, Sam Prattley, Jonathan Poff, Francis Smith, Joe Wheeler, Steve Alfeld, Blair Cook, Daniel Hawkins, Sione Holani, James Kamana, Robbie Malneek, James Marshall, Tom Marshall, Afeleki Pelenise, Kade Poki, Jack Umaga, Kaide Whiting.

Coach - Kieran Keane

Canterbury: Rodney Ah You, Peter Borlase, Stephen Brett, Wyatt Crockett, Ryan Crotty, Andy Ellis, Robbie Fruean, Steve Fualau, Willi Heinz, Sean Maitland, Nasi Manu, Sam Monaghan, Paul Ngauamo, Brendon O'Connor, Andrew Olorenshaw, Patrick Osborne, Ash Parker, Luke Romano, Isaac Ross, Colin Slade, Matt Todd, Tu Umaga-Marshall, Telusa Veainu, Rob Verbakel, Adam Whitelock, Dan Carter, Corey Flynn, Owen Franks, Richie McCaw, Kieran Read, Brad Thorn, George Whitelock (captain), Sam Whitelock, Sonny Bill Williams

Coach - Rob Penney

Otago: Halani Aulika, Liam Coltman, Glenn Dickson, Paul Grant, Sam Hibbard, Joe Hill, Eben Joubert, Seko Kalou, Paula Kinikinilau, Johnny Legg, Hoani Matenga, Kees Meeuws, Peter Mirrielees, Chris Noakes, Charlie O'Connell, Andrew Parata, Sean Romans, Ryan Shortland, Chris Small, Ben Smith, Alando Soakai, Josh Tatupu, Adam Thomson, Josh Townsend, Hayden Triggs, Fetu`u Vainikolo

Coach - Phil Mooney

Southland: Nicholas Barrett, Dion Bates, Joshua Bekhuis, Tim Boys, Jimmy Cowan, Scott Cowan, Elliot Dixon, John Hardie, Glen Horton, Chris King, Tony Koonwaiyou, Kendrick Lynn, Jamie Mackintosh (captain), Seminar Manu-Tinela, Brayden Mitchell, James Paterson, Micheal Peterson, Sonny Rangitoheriri, Robbie Robinson, Jason Rutledge, Michael Ryan, Matt Saunders, Hua Tamariki, Pehi Te Whare, Kane Thompson, Joe Tuineau, Mark Wells, James Wilson

Coaches - David Henderson and Simon Culhane


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