New-look Canterbury kick off title defence
July 28, 2010
Sonny Bill Williams made a high-profile move to Canterbury in the summer but will sit out the opening round with a knee injury © Getty Images
The latest battle for provincial supremacy in New Zealand kicks off on Thursday with the opening round of games in this season's ITM Cup.
Defending champions and title favourites Canterbury have started each of the last two seasons with opening-round losses before going on to claim the provincial crown but will still be hoping to get off on a positive note against Hawke's Bay in Christchurch on Friday night. But they will be without a host of players on All Blacks duty and sidelined by injury including big summer signing Sonny Bill Williams who misses the game with a knee injury. Also sidelined is rising centre Robbie Fruean who required hospital treatment this week due to an irregular heartbeat.
Two years ago, soon after helping New Zealand win the under-19 world title, Fruean was diagnosed with rheumatic fever and a life-threatening heart condition. He had a new heart valve attached that enabled him to continue breathing and, miraculously, return to playing rugby. Fruean's absence has forced a backline shuffle that sees Ryan Crotty and Stephen Brett start out one place wider than usual at centre and second five-eighth. Colin Slade will wear No.10. The debut starter is wing Patrick Osborne while newcomers on the bench are hooker Paul Ngauamo, lock Rob Verbakel, flanker Brendon O'Connor, halfback Matt George, midfielder Robbie Flynn and wing Telusa Veainu.
Hawke's Bay, beaten by Canterbury in last season's semi-finals, have not won in Christchurch since 1968 but will travel in hope with the likes of recent All Blacks winger Zac Guildford and former rugby league international Luke Rooney in their ranks. Daniel Kirkpatrick will be tasked with controlling proceedings at fly-half following the departure of Matt Berquist with Jason Shoemark set to lead the side from outside centre.
The season kicks off with Taranaki playing host to Northland at the Yarrow Stadium in New Plymouth on Thursday night. Both sides struggled to make an impression on last year's competition but in new recruits Lachie Munro and David Holwell, Northland have proven playmakers and in All Blacks winger Rene Ranger they have a rising star of the game. But in Andre Taylor and Kurt Baker, Taranaki have their own pair of attacking backs that compliment a Super Rugby-heavyline-up.
Saturday's action begins with Southland's trip to Manawatu with the visitors looking to conjure the form that carried them to the semi-finals last year and propelled them to a Ranfurly Shield success. The ability of rising Southland fly-half Robbie Robinson to spark their attack could be decisive while Manawatu have been stripped of some exciting backline talent although No.10 Aaron Cruden remains as a key threat.
Counties Manukau will then line-up against Otago at Growers Stadium in Pukeohe where the hosts are set to be without Tana Umaga. The former All Blacks captain, who returned to New Zealand last month after three years as a player/coach with French club Toulon, has been battling the 'flu and may struggle to play for his new province.
"He's 37 so we've got to be aware of how we manage him through the season. He won't play every game and every minute," said coach Milton. "He knows his body better than everyone else and if he's right, he'll make that call. Hopefully he'll be right because on the field is where he has a real impact."
New Otago coach Phil Mooney has a big job restoring the province's pride, with flankers Adam Thomson and Alando Soakai important figures if they are to improve on some lacklustre seasons of late.
Elsewhere, Waikato tackle Bay of Plenty in Hamilton with both sides looking to make the leap from mid-table finishes last season into the mix for honours. Exciting ACT Brumbies inside back Christian Lealiifano is the most interesting new recruit at Waikato, who have good depth but must overcome the loss of key forwards Sione Lauaki and Kevin O'Neill. Looking a little stronger are Bay of Plenty, who will hope fly-half Mike Delany can be the same influence as last year behind a potent-looking front eight.
On Sunday, North Harbour entertain Auckland in North Shore City with All Black Luke McAlister under pressure to nurture a smattering of the world champion New Zealand U20s side. Auckland welcome back former stalwarts in flanker Daniel Braid, fullback Brent Ward and centre Ben Atiga while Matt Berquist and Toby Morland bring depth to the halves.
Wellington, narrowly beaten by Canterbury in last season's finale, will begin their quest to go one better against Tasman at the Westpac Stadium. A talented backs division includes wingers Hosea Gear and Julian Savea, the latter a standout at the U20 World Cup, with skipper Rodney So'oialo sure to provide plenty of grunt. Tasman may struggle to match last year's feisty campaign, having lost key scrum-half Kahn Fotuali'i to Hawke's Bay and a handful of forwards. New captain Chris Jack will provide crucial experience.
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