While all the teams eye the ITM Cup Premiership and Championship trophies up for grabs, the first competition Ranfurly Shield challenge strikes in Week 2 of an 11-week competition.
New Zealand General Manager Rugby Neil Sorensen said the ITM Cup held an important place in the rugby landscape and continued to be an important springboard for emerging talent.
“As our All Blacks prepare to head out to visit provincial New Zealand later this week, today’s launch serves as a timely reminder that the dream for higher honours in rugby often starts here with the ITM Cup.”
ITM CEO Gordon Buswell welcomed the start of the season as another great opportunity to celebrate provincial rugby.
“Last year’s ITM Cup saw the Ranfurly Shield change hands many times which generated a huge degree of excitement as provinces fought hard to hold on to the shield and my feeling is that we’re in for more of the same this time around.
New game priorities for referees
Following a review of the 2013 season and Investec Super Rugby, including feedback from coaches, New Zealand Rugby is rolling out a few changes to interpretations of the law, in a bid to help keep the game flowing and to tidy up areas that were creating “dead time” during a game.
From the start of the ITM Cup 2014 season referees will give greater scrutiny to five priorities:
-Halfbacks must feed the ball straight
-Lineout throws to be down the middle and done quickly
-Scrum to be stable before ball fed
-Scrums must push forward before any “wheel”
-Lineout throws must be down the middle
-Players must not interfere with jumpers in the air
-Cleaning out players beyond the ball not acceptable
-Tacklers must exit this phase east/west and not interfere with the ball release
-A contest at the tackle encouraged by players being on their feet
-The ball will be deemed out of the ruck when the halfback lifts the ball (not when he touches it)
-Backlines at lineouts must be 10m back until the lineout is over
-Backlines in rucks/mauls must be onside until the ball is released
-Players must stop when ahead of their kicker at kicks in general play
-Tail gunners at the 15m line in lineouts must remain so until the lineout ends
-Captains expected to be key communicators with referees
-Cynical infringements to be dealt with quickly and decisively
-Coaches and referees to communicate with each other before and after games
The competition begins with Taranaki hosting Ranfurly Shield holders Counties Manukau at Yarrow Stadium on Thursday 14 August, and the following evening Southland welcomes Bay of Plenty, who were relegated from the Premiership last year.
Three matches on Saturday will see Otago, a 2013 semi-finalist in the Championship, host North Harbour, immediately followed by Canterbury, the reigning champions – having claimed the last six titles – playing Auckland in what promises to be a blockbuster at AMI Stadium.
Saturday’s action concludes with Waikato travelling to Wellington, while Sunday will see Tasman play out a replay of last season’s Championship Final with Lansdowne Park welcoming Hawke’s Bay, while the opening round of action concludes with Northland hosting Manawatu at Whangarei.
The Steelers, who have now defended the Ranfurly Shield five times with victories over Thames Valley and Mid Canterbury earlier this year, will put the oldest national prize in New Zealand Rugby (now 110-years old) up for grabs against Otago in the second round giving the Southerners another crack roughly 12 months after they created history.
The blue and gold won the Log o’Wood last year off Waikato, a week later they lost it to the Magpies, who then were unable to defend it against Tana Umaga’s Counties seven days later.