The ITM Cup 2015 is nearly here for another season following a surprising 2014 season which breathed new life into the competition with "Cinderella" stories Taranaki and Manawatu winning the Premiership and Championship respectively, while Wellington was relegated to the Championship for 2015.
It is difficult to know if the usually dominant bigger unions like Canterbury and Auckland will fight back this season, or if the likes of Taranaki and Tasman will repeat the dose in 2015. It makes for a surreal competition when the usual heavyweights like Wellington, Waikato, Canterbury and Auckland struggling more than usual, while Taranaki, Tasman and Counties were three of the teams to watch.
Not to be forgotten, the ITM Cup Championship saw Manawatu who were barely expected to make the semi-finals, going on to win the Championship convincingly beating the likes of their former Central Vikings partners, Hawke's Bay and other solid teams like Southland, Otago, Northland, Bay of Plenty and North Harbour. It will be fascinating to see Wellington in the Premiership, given their pedigree and history.
Being a Rugby World Cup year, the ITM Cup will play second fiddle to what is happening in the UK, but there will still be plenty of interest domestically, with the ITM Cup starting before the Rugby World Cup.
The ITM Cup has a habit in recent seasons of unveiling some magnificent young talent and has been very fast paced in recent seasons. The All Blacks will be missing from the competition this season, so plenty of ITM Cup teams will be sweating not only on the health of players, but also if they make Steve Hansen's All Blacks Rugby World Cup squad. There is also the added problem of teams losing players to other nations. Usually there are plenty of players in the ITM Cup who play for Pacific Island nations, and it isn't really sustainable for unions to contract players for only a few games, so these players will either have limited or no involvement in the ITM Cup 2015. There are also players like Gareth Anscombe, John Hardie and Jared Payne who in recent seasons have gone over to play in Europe and make it to the Rugby World Cup. These guys are all quality Super Rugby players who represent the next tier of players in New Zealand rugby, so it will be a shame that this tier of players is unavailable as they usually dominate ITM Cup. The good thing about New Zealand rugby is the ability for absolute no-names to stand-up in the ITM Cup and get noticed for Super Rugby selection for the following season.
Who are you picking to win the ITM Cup Premiership and Championship in 2015?
The beauty of both Taranaki and Tasman last season was that they didn't have All Blacks like the likes of Canterbury or Wellington, but they have good Super Rugby players. The All Blacks are usually a disruption for some of the big teams, rather than an improvement. It is still a mystery as to how some teams can fit under the salary cap like they do, with the likes of Taranaki and Tasman having some impressive looking squads.
Watch for Taranaki to be hard to beat in 2015, but they won't be able to fly under the radar so much in 2015, while Tasman, Canterbury, Auckland and Counties will be in with a shot. It is hard to know how Manawatu and Waikato will fare, but the absence of so many international players will make for a more even competition.
In the ITM Cup Championship, it is hard to see Wellington not making the final at least, while Hawke's Bay have a team with too much talent to not be a threat. The Stags will be hoping in some small way that star first five eighth Lima Sopoaga doesn't make the All Blacks, while Otago should also make the semi-finals. The likes of Northland, North Harbour and Bay of Plenty will be looking to do a Manawatu and win, despite not being rated to even make the semi-finals.
Who are you picking to win the ITM Cup Premiership and Championship?
My picks are Tasman to go from bridesmaid to ITM Cup Premiership winning team, as they have an experienced squad of good Super Rugby players now.
Wellington should return to the ITM Cup Premiership by winning the Championship.
My picks : ITM Cup Premiership - Tasman
My picks : ITM Cup Championship - Wellington