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ITM Cup
ITM Cup set for kick-off
ESPNscrum Staff
July 13, 2011

The revamped ITM Cup, crammed into an eight-week window, kicks off this week with Canterbury hoping to make it four titles in a row.

The constraints caused by the timing of the rugby World Cup have forced the New Zealand Rugby Union to add midweek matches to the new-look domestic competition, which sees the 14 top provinces split into two divisions based on last year's results. The defending champions and the other top six teams play in the Premiership while teams who finished outside the top seven play in the Championship. The bottom-placed Premiership side will be relegated to the second-tier next year, while the winner of the Championship final earns promotion to the elite division.

The new format and dealing with the late reintegration of Crusaders players back into squad after their run to the Super Rugby final have given Canterbury coach Rob Penney plenty of headaches as he seeks to add a fourth successive crown to a run of titles which started in 2008. He anticipated a season high on novelty value, but wary about the step into the unknown.

"There's certainly going to be issues around injuries and so forth so you're going to need a depth of cover," said Penney. "It's a very unique year. We've been flying by the seats of our pants in a way a because it is so new for everybody. We'll see what happens at the end of it, but it's going to be a sprint," Penney told NZPA.

In a throwback to the halcyon days of the national provincial championship, Canterbury will play their home fixtures in the middle of the afternoon at Rugby Park as its lighting is inadequate to host night games while earthquake-damaged AMI Stadium remains out of action. Penney, an advocate of the afternoon kick-offs, was hopeful his side could continue the feel good factor sparked by the Crusaders' nomadic efforts in Super Rugby, but expected some challenges as fans and players alike get to grips with the rejigged competition.

"There's a degree of complexity to this competition that is going to be a little difficult for people to get their heads around, which is a shame ... but I think we've got a competition which serves a purpose right now due to the restraints we have around time," said Penney. "It's not going to take any intensity or robustness out of the games themselves and we've just got to try and deal with the situation that we've been thrust into."

Canterbury are a championship away from matching Auckland's four titles on the bounce in the mid-1990s, but with an inexperienced side on show in the pre-season due to the prolonged absence of those in the Crusaders squad Penney has had his hands full bringing new players up to speed.

"When you look through that team when Auckland won four in a row it was pretty much the same group rolled out year after year -- with a massive amount of experience and a lot of All Blacks - but nowadays we've got three players back from the final against Wellington in 2008 - it's a massive transition."

Canterbury open their defence away to Auckland on Sunday, against a side which includes former All Blacks Daniel Braid, Alby Mathewson and Joe Rokocoko and the promising first five-eighth Gareth Anscombe who was man of the match as the New Zealand Under-20 side landed their fourth Junior World Championship title in Italy last month.

The new structure gets its debut on Thursday when Otago, who will be steered around the park by veteran first five-eighth Tony Brown, take on championship rivals North Harbour. The Liam Barry-coached North Harbour side will be missing former All Blacks centre Luke McAlister, but their squad featured former All Blacks wing Rudi Wulf and Sevens recruits Solomon King and David Raikuna.

The Premiership breathes into life on Friday in Invercargill with Southland, whose gutsy Ranfurly Shield defences caught the imagination last year, meeting 2010 finalists Waikato. The Stags have had to cope with dramas off the field after the union went heavily into the red and needed a $1.5 million rescue package to keep them going while Waikato have had their own financial headaches after posting a $684,000 loss for 2010. The Mooloo men welcome back Marty Holah from Wales and have their own Sevens stars in Declan O'Donnell and Rory Grice in their squad.

Manawatu coach Dave Rennie takes over at Super Rugby franchise the Chiefs next season and will want to leave the Turbos in good heart, but they face a difficult championship opener against Hawke's Bay on Saturday. Manawatu, playing at FMG Stadium, will welcome back All Blacks discard Aaron Cruden with open arms but the Magpies, who made a sluggish start last season, have added former Samoa international lock Kane Thompson and winger Tu Umaga-Marshall to their ranks this year.

In the same division, Northland have enticed Jack McPhee away from North Harbour and welcome lock Marty Veale back from a stint with London Wasps and include Blues trio Rene Ranger, Jared Payne and Lachie Munro in their squad. The Taniwhas host Tasman on Saturday with the Makos heartened by the form of Crusaders fullback Tom Marshall. Premiership side Wellington will want to put the trials and tribulations of the Hurricanes behind them and with Under-20 stars Brad Shields and TJ Perenara in the squad they may look to a new breed to show them the way when they face Taranaki, who boast a settled squad, in New Plymouth on Saturday night.

The Championship fixture between Counties-Manukau, missing Tana Umaga with a ruptured achilles but with jack-in-the-box Sherwin Stowers on hand, and Bay of Plenty, who have recruited former Wallabies centre Steve Kefu, will complete the opening round on Sunday.

ITM Cup 2011 - Format:
The competition has been split into two divisions - the premiership and the championship - comprising seven teams each based on finishing positions in 2010 with those who finished in the top seven contesting the premiership and those who were ranked eight to 14 playing in the second-tier championship.

In a season shortened to eight weeks because of the Rugby World Cup, teams in each division play against each other once and then play four "crossover" matches against teams from the other division.

The team finishing seventh in the premiership will be relegated to the championship next year and the winner of the championship final will take their place in the premiership in 2012.

There are no semi-finals, only finals between the teams placed first and second in each division.

The abbreviated season means games will be played on Tuesdays and Wednesdays with teams forced to play up to three matches in a week. As a concession to the taxing schedule, the New Zealand Rugby Union has allowed teams an extra reserve on the bench, and to stay on the road between some midweek and weekend fixtures.

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