itm cupThe ITM Cup 2013 is nearly here. I love the ITM Cup because it gives amateur and semi professional players from the provinces an excellent opportunity to foot it with the big boys.  The ITM Cup is nothing more than a feeder competition to Super Rugby and you don’t see many current All Blacks in it anymore, but I still love it, especially when I get to see the mighty Southland Stags in action.

The ITM Cup 2013 features 14 teams, 76 matches over 11 weeks and the beauty of the ITM Cup is that you don’t need to get up in the middle of the night to watch your team in action like Super Rugby.  There are also plenty of day games and people in the provinces get behind their team because it is their boys against the rest.  With two pools of seven teams, over half the teams reach the semi finals.

I can’t wait to see how Tana Umaga’s Counties Manukau Steelers go in the Premiership.  They were impressive in 2012, but will their talented players like Tim Nanai-Williams, Bundee Aki, Frank Halai, Fritz Lee and Baden Kerr among others be as fresh as they were last season when they embarrassed plenty of more fancied teams?  I think it is more difficult to get up for if you have played a full season of Super Rugby before the ITM Cup.  They definitely have the flair in the backs, but it could be difficult to gain ascendancy upfront on a weekly basis against the Premiership teams will require a step up from 2012.

I am picking Canterbury to win the ITM Cup Premiership 2013 under coach Scott Robertson and captain George Whitelock.  Despite the All Blacks being absent from most of the competition, they will be difficult to beat.  I wonder if the Ranfurly Shield will help or hinder Waikato? I am picking Wellington and Auckland to make the semi finals with Counties pip Waikato for the 4th spot.  Most of these teams will have players out with the All Blacks for most of the season.  Waikato may struggle to defend the Ranfurly Shield given how their opponents will lift their game to challenge for it.

I think Hawkes Bay will be difficult to beat in the ITM Cup Championship after being relegated last season. They have recruited heavily and should return to the Premiership for 2014.  I think the Southland Stags and Otago will also make the semi finals.  The other spot will probably go to North Harbour who had some exciting young players perform admirably for the Blues in Super Rugby 2013.  It would be exciting if Northland made it to the semi finals though.

Speaking of Northland, I can’t wait to see them in the ITM Cup 2013.  They have two of the most exciting backs to play rugby in the last 15 years.  Rene Ranger will captain Northland and with the absence of any current All Blacks, he will be one of the best players on display.  Rupeni Caucaunibuca will be returning to Northland this season at the ripe old age of 33.  This guy has scored some absolutely stunning tries in his career and has made some quick opponents look pedestrian.  It will be interesting to see how fit he is.

Speaking of exciting, imagine if NRL player and potential new signing for the Blues gets some ITM Cup action in 2013.  Wouldn’t it be cool if Northland gets Benji Marshall.  That would be one exciting backline.

Finally there is my team the Southland Stags.  It is amazing how many people are so passionate about the mighty Stags.  I think it is because so many people from Southland now live all over New Zealand.  Unfortunately the charismatic Jason Rutledge is injured and may miss the entire ITM Cup season.  On the bright side, the Stags welcome back experienced players like Hale T Pole, David Hall and Bryan Milne.  I also have faith that some of the new imports and up and coming players like Cardiff Vaega and Michael Fatialofa will play their way into Super Rugby contracts.  I also think that if key players like Robbie Robinson, Marty McKenzie, Elliot Dixon, John Hardie, Jamie Mackintosh and Josh Bekhuis stay injury free, then the Stags may get somewhere towards promotion back to the Premiership which they were relegated from in 2011.  Can the Stags return to their former glory of 2009-2011?

Who are you picking to win the ITM Cup Premiership and Championship?  I am hoping that the Southland Stags and Counties Manukau Steelers make the final of their divisions.  I also think that Canterbury and Hawkes Bay must be the favourites to win the ITM Cup Premiership and Championship.

Do you prefer ITM Cup or Super Rugby?