What we learned from ITM Cup 2014
October 30, 2013
Canterbury set an impressive benchmark © Getty Images
Lynn McConnell gives his view of why the national provincial rugby championship is still so important to the game in New Zealand.
He was playing in the Heartland Championship 12 months ago, but he, and others, demonstrated it is still possible emerge from the minor unions and make an impact at a higher level. This is one of the most important factors in the New Zealand game.
Winning the ITM Cup competition still matters. Some teams talk the talk, but Canterbury consistently walk the walk; and by setting the standards they do, they provide the challenge for other sides to aspire to match.
Steelers fans had never been so close to the Ranfurly Shield © Getty Images
The Ranfurly Shield
What a jewel the Log o' Wood is for the New Zealand game. Waikato, Otago, Hawke's Bay and Counties Manukau will attest to that. The boost it gave the last three sides, albeit briefly for Otago and Hawke's Bay, cannot be underestimated, while Counties Manukau have filled a significant gap in their history by finally securing the trophy.
Not everyone can make the New Zealand Under-20 team or the New Zealand Secondary Schools side so the ITM Cup is a great place to prove worth. The greater ability to move around the country also creates opportunities; just ask Cardiff Vaega, Brayden Mitchell, Billy Guyton, Willis Halaholo, Brendan O'Connor and others what they think.
Billy Guyton made a name for himself in 2013 © Getty Images
You have to kick your goals to succeed as a team at any level of rugby, and the pressure associated with success in both the Premiership and Championship is evidence of that. Three of the top teams in the Championship and seeking promotion had the top three kickers in the competition - Banks, Hayden Parker and Ihaia West.
A few years ago the question was: who was going to succeed Dan Carter? Certainly he is one of a kind, but you would have to say the talent thrown up by the ITM Cup is a great comfort. Not only Banks, Parker and West, as mentioned above, but throw in, in no particular order, Simon Hickey (Auckland), Lima Sopoaga (Wellington), Scott Eade (Southland), Tyler Bleyendaal, Richie Mo'unga and Tom Taylor (all of Canterbury) and there is some depth in the position. That is not to say all are Test candidates, but they do keep the pressure on.
Lima Sopoaga enjoyed a successful season with the Lions © Getty Images
Ditto the first-fives. In such an injury-laden position at the sharp end of the game, flankers are more prone to problems than most other positions. And when Richie McCaw was on leave, or injured, the ability to call on someone like Matt Todd, who was still in match play, was invaluable. That's not to forget players like Ardie Savea emerging at that level.
No, this isn't a joke. Referees need match play such as the ITM Cup to lift standards of officiating over the country as a whole. Just look at the lack of referees from Australia at the moment. While acknowledging that the ITM Cup can be a breeding ground for our future referees, it has to be said they could do with some sharpening up.
Criticism of the lack of numbers at ITM Cup games forgets a few things. Yes, there is greater appeal for Super Rugby. Yes there are a lot more Test matches to pay for. But the fact is we are still in an economic downturn, and families, especially, don't have the ability to turn out en masse as they used to. And if you are able to subscribe to pay television you can't always cough up the extra to attend games; it's one thing or the other.
Kieran Keane and Leon MacDonald have made names for themselves with Tasman © Getty Images
They may be one of New Zealand's finest exports but the fact remains that every coach needs a career path. If it was good enough for Sir Graham Henry and Steve Hansen to start at provincial level, it is good enough for other prospective All Blacks coaches. The ITM Cup is a significant second step, after club coaching, and demonstrates who are worthy of the next step up.
In all respects, these 10 factors are vital to the future of the New Zealand game. The ITM Cup cannot be written off as irrelevant and to suggest otherwise is to commit New Zealand's rugby future to chance - and that doesn't bear thinking about.