After the best part of 10 years in the UK, I am returning to my home town of Dunedin, New Zealand. However upon arrival my first taste of rugby will be my beloved Otago embroiled in the fight of their life for survival in top flight rugby in New Zealand.
Let me explain. This weekend the ITM Cup kicks off New Zealand’s domestic rugby competition. This years format is a ‘one-off’ and with that comes added interest. This year there are 14 teams that play each other once before the standard finals format ends the competition. However the added interest is that from next year the competition will be split into a first and second division. Meaning this year’s competition is all about finishing in the ‘Top 7’.
So who are going to be the ‘Top 7’ and who are destined for ‘Second Division’ rugby in World Cup year.
1. Canterbury (Crusaders) Odds 3/1: They are by far and away the strongest of the fourteen sides with names that SW readers will obviously recognise from the Crusaders side in this year’s Super 14. Add to that a certain Sonny Bill Williams slotting into their backline and you have your winner. Key Player: Stephen Brett
2. Wellington (Hurricanes) Odds 4/1: The lads from the capital will make the final. Many say they have the most well rounded squad with plenty of firepower in the backs. Look out for the likes of Hosea Gear and World IRB Under 20 Player of the Year Julian Savea to score plenty of tries. Key Player: Rodney So’oialo
3. Waikato (Chiefs) Odds 8/1: Waikato, with Stephen Donald and Brendon Leonard at the helm, should make the top four. Waikato is the home base for the Chiefs franchise and always attract talent. Their interesting recruit comes in the acquisition of Brumbies play maker Christian Lealiifano. Key Player: Stephen Donald
4. Auckland (Blues) Odds 10/1: Auckland also is full of Blues Super Rugby talent and will welcome back some much needed experience in the forms of Daniel Braid, Ben Atiga, Brent Ward, Matt Berquist and Toby Morland. Key Player: Daniel Braid
5. Hawkes Bay (Hurricanes) Odds14/1: Hawkes Bay have enjoyed plenty of success in recent seasons and have players to trouble some of the more established teams. They will be captained by Highlander Jason Shoemark, and he will be supported by young All Black duo Izzy Dagg and Zac Guildford who will be both out to push their AB credentials. Their player of interest for me is the signing of Luke Rooney from Toulon, it will be interesting to see how the Melbourne Rebel fronts up. Key Player: Zac Guildford
6. Southland (Highlanders) Odds 15/1: They have a well established side that is full of Highlanders. Southland have been one of the countries big spenders in recent seasons and it has paid dividends. Players to watch include Scott Cowan, Robbie Robinson, Kenny Lynn, Jason Rutledge, and Josh Bekhuis. Key Player: Jamie Mackintosh
7. Taranaki (Hurricanes) Odds 27/1: Taranaki are who we (Otago) will be in direct competition with for a ‘Top 7’ finish. They have recruited really well and have a host of top class talent, that should secure them a Top 7 finish. Players to watch include David Smith, Tyson Keats, George Pisi, Willie Ripia, Scott Waldrom and Craig Clarke. Key Player: Scott Waldrom
8. Otago (Highlanders) Odds 35/1: My boys are well and truly up against it this year. So to think we are in a battle for 7th may well be getting ahead of ourselves. The significance of Otago not performing is that it provides ammunition to the NZRFU to take away our Super Rugby Franchise and move it north to Auckland where North Harbour has a strong population and player base. Otago v North Harbour will be an epic battle this year. Key Player: Adam Thompson
9. Bay of Plenty (Chiefs) Odds 42/1: BOP may be one of the less fancied sides this year that may prove no push over. They have eleven players that were in the Chiefs squad. They traditional start well and run out of steam (no pun intended). Key Player: Tanerau Latimer
10. North Harbour (Blues) Odds 68/1: Will again be coached by Craig Dowd and Jeff Wilson. They will have to cope with the loss of some key talent from last year and won’t make the Top 7. I wish them well…NOT ! Key Player: Luke McAlister
11. Tasman (Crusaders) Odds 100/1: Tasman will again struggle this season but will have the services of the experienced Chris jack who refuses to admit his day is over . Their assistant Coach will be Leon McDonald. Key Player: Chris Jack
12. Northland (Blues) Odds 150/1: Should really struggle this year. Their influential Crusader Jared Payne is fighting to be fit for the start of the competition. Players that should catch the eye will be their fly half Lachie Munro as well as the versatile Rene Ranger. Key Player: Jared Payne
13. Manawatu (Hurricanes) Odds 200/1: Manawatu look like they will be without Aaron Cruden for most of their campaign due to his rise to prominence. Although they have lost many players from last year, they still have some exciting NZ Sevens talent. Key Player: Nick Crosswell
14. Counties (Blues) Odds 200/1: All eyes in South Auckland will be firmly focussed on Tana Umaga as he returns in a Player/Coach capacity. In reality Counties just don’t have the forwards to be competitive. Key Player: Tim Nanai-Williams
So they are the teams and some of the players that will be making headlines for the next couple of months down in ‘The Land of the Long White Cloud’. This year it is not only the title winner that has everything to play for, but also everything to lose for the team that finishes eighth. From where i’m sitting right now, it looks very much like my lads are destined for that spot on the log. So as every weekend’s fixtures are rolled out a team destined for the ‘Top 7’ just can’t afford to drop points against teams from the bottom 7.
This is our last year at Carisbrook as we welcome in a new era at our newly built stadium. Let’s just hope we are not welcoming second division rugby next year as well.
If this has sparked an interest in following the ITM Cup, our very own Jarson has a Superbru Pool running (as there is no official Sharksworld Pool, I think I can plug it) which currently only has 16 participants.
Superbru Pool: Team Captain Jarson
Pool Name: Bok Factory
Pool Code: Curedeft.
You are most welcome to join. As I will be travelling home one thing is for sure – I won’t be winning it !Tweet