itm cupThe highlight of ITM Cup Round 4 will be the Ranfurly Shield challenge between Hawkes Bay and Counties on Saturday afternoon.  It is amazing seeing what the Ranfurly Shield has done to the ITM Cup.  It turns fixtures between two truly provincial teams like Counties and Hawkes Bay into a massive match.  The history of the Ranfurly Shield has breathed new life into the ITM Cup with teams like Otago and Hawkes Bay not winning the famous Log of Wood since the 1950s and 1960s respectively, while Counties has never won it.   I think Counties drought will continue since Hawkes Bay do look like a slick side, while Counties haven’t reached their 2012 form which saw them get promoted to the ITM Cup Premiership.

Most of the other games should be relatively predictable, although the Tasman vs Otago fixture is one I am looking forward to.  The Championship heavyweights like Auckland, Canterbury and Wellington are yet to play each other while this round both teams meeting tonight, Auckland and Counties have two games.  Given that Counties second match will be a Ranfurly Shield challenge against Hawkes Bay, it will be difficult to know if their mind will be on tonight’s game.

Auckland should be too strong for Counties tonight.  They are resting some of their players for this match.  Auckland are a strange team as they are still unbeaten, but haven’t played any heavyweight teams and struggled to put away Championship minnows Manawatu and North Harbour.  It will be interesting to see how much Counties wants to put into this game given the Ranfurly Shield challenge on Saturday.  Their hand has probably been forced though since they lost to Championship team Tasman last week.  I am going for a relatively close margin in this game because it is supposed to be wet for this one.

In other matches some of the heavyweights are playing against lesser ranked teams away from home with Wellington, Canterbury, Waikato and Auckland’s second match for the round against Taranaki likely to see some changes as they rest and rotate players.  Because the All Blacks are playing this weekend then there will be less fringe All Blacks players in the ITM Cup over the next few rounds.  In previous seasons I would have picked the odd upset in these games, but this season there does seem to be a gulf between the top bracket of teams and the rest.  I am picking relatively low margins in some of these games rather than upsets.

I wouldn’t put Waikato in the top echelon category yet, but the Southland Stags will need to lift their game if they are to win on Friday night, although it is tough for visitors to Invercargill and Waikato have been unimpressive.  That match is probably the most likely for an upset in my opinion.   Auckland could be vulnerable against Taranaki in their second game for the round, but like Southland, Taranaki will need to improve.

Tasman vs Otago and Manawatu vs North Harbour are probably the two toughest games to pick in ITM Cup Round 4.  Otago will be hurting after losing the Ranfurly Shield, but this Tasman team should still be too strong.  They have been impressive.  If Francis Sailli was playing then I would pick North Harbour, but since he is likely to be involved in the All Blacks squad then the Manawatu vs North Harbour game is definitely in the balance.

Finally, I find it interesting that ITM Cup Championship teams Hawkes Bay, Otago and Tasman all look better than some of the ITM Cup Premiership teams.  It means that the ITM Cup Premiership looks like a battle between Canterbury, Wellington and Auckland, but it is the Championship battle between Hawkes Bay, Otago and Tasman that is more exciting for me.  Call me a purist!

In the Super Rugby Tips SuperBru conference Morales is still in the lead, but Jan is catching and is a threat after securing the Yellow Cap last week.  Don’t forget to get your picks in asap, given that the round starts tonight.  It could be beneficial entering your picks daily because some teams for the weekend matches won’t be named until Friday and there are often changes, especially when some teams play twice in the round.  There will also be plenty of matches affected by the rain, so as they say “the wet weather is a great leveller”, hence some lower margins.

My ITM Cup Round 4 picks

Auckland by 7 points

Canterbury by 21 points

Waikato by 3 points (as a Stags fan I hope I am wrong with that one).

Tasman by 14 points

Auckland by 6 points

Hawke’s Bay by 10 points

Manawatu by 1 point

Wellington by 18 points

Who are you picking to win ITM Cup rugby Round 4 matches?  Does your team have a chance?