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Air New Zealand Cup
It's the taking part that counts
NZPA's Chris Barclay
July 27, 2009

It is often frowned upon as defeatist, but the sporting mantra of placing participation ahead of winning certainly resonates during this season's Air New Zealand Cup competition.

The champions will be crowned on November 7 but the real victors will not be apparent until later that month when the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) announces which four provinces are relegated to the newly-devised first division in 2011.

The likes of Tasman, Manawatu and Counties-Manukau have their game faces on despite subconsciously playing against the clock, knowing the NZRU's criteria will probably beat them regardless of their success on the paddock. Their challenge is to make the most of a last season in the top flight - a four-year exercise where the thrill of promotion was quickly tempered by a realisation they could not quite compete with the major unions, even if Auckland and North Harbour were among 2008's also rans.

Another revamp of the old NPC was inevitable once the 14-team competition was deemed unsustainable. Tasman and Northland were threatened with demotion last season but gained a reprieve, however short-lived.

Next on the block was Counties-Manukau, who last month boldly rejected a NZRU bailout package that was contingent on the union voluntarily heading for the exit. But that stance could be under revision after a drive for 3000 season ticket holders gained little traction.

Although the battles for survival will be a focal point of this year's provincial showdown, the competition still serves a more positive purpose. Success at national age group level and then the Super 14 are litmus tests, but good old fashioned provincial rivalry can still be relied upon to groom the next generation of All Blacks, for the 2011 World Cup and beyond. Manawatu's young fly-half Aaron Cruden fits that mould.

A star turn at the Under-20 World Championships, Graham Henry has already intimated that an impressive campaign with Manawatu could see Cruden included on the end of year tour to the northern hemisphere. No mean feat for a kid who has fought cancer and played only a handful of first class games.

And surely Auckland must be capable of producing a couple of future household names after picking a squad for the tournament without a single All Black, current or former. New coach Mark Anscombe took the 'breeding ground' concept to the extreme by naming eight new faces in his 26-man squad - one responsible with atoning for last year's 11th placing and meek concession of the Ranfurly Shield.

Auckland's absence of All Blacks is no surprise as these days the internationals are rarely, if ever, sighted at provincial level. This year they will not be available for play-off cameos as the end of year tour will already be underway.

However, the Air New Zealand Cup remains a vital outlet for the rehabilitating and rejected.While Cruden may be the future, Dan Carter is very much the present so his involvement for defending champions Canterbury will be closely monitored at home - and by Henry.

There are also All Blacks hoping to rekindle Henry's interest before late October, notably Waikato captain Liam Messam and his enigmatic teammate Sione Lauaki. At North Harbour, Anthony Boric, new captain Anthony Tuitavake and Rudi Wulf are three seasoned provincial campaigners eager to revitalise their fledgling All Black careers; Jamie Mackintosh in Southland and Lelia Masaga at Counties are in the same position.

While league convert Timana Tahu is returning to his old stamping ground across the Tasman in Australia former New Zealand Warrior Michael Witt has switched codes to play in Dunedin - Kiwis and Warriors centre Clinton Toopi will be blooded on the wing by Bay of Plenty.

The developmental theme of the competition is not confined to the players - old All Blacks have turned to coaching in increasing numbers. Craig Dowd and Jeff Wilson hold the reins at North Harbour, Blair Larsen assists Bryce Woodward at Northland while former Waikato and Fiji hooker Greg Smith has the job at Bay of Plenty, replacing Kevin Schuler.

Of the established coaches, Jamie Joseph and Steve Martin's seasons may be defined by the first round meeting between Wellington and Otago.

Joseph must deliver a title to the Lions after a painful wait and loss in last year's final, while Martin is tasked with rekindling a flagging side that was nowhere to be seen in the end-of-season shake up in 2008. He has a fine chance to win hearts early on should his men end Otago's 52-year gap between Ranfurly Shield reigns on Friday.

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