Two new teams will compete for the Ranfurly Shield this week when the title’s latest holders, Hawkes Bay, take on Counties Manukau in the round’s most anticipated fixture.
The Ranfurly Shield has worked wonders for the 2013 ITM Cup as it currently resides in the Championship competition; turning an otherwise run-of-the-mill fixture between Hawkes Bay and Counties, into an enormous occasion. Championship sides Hawkes Bay and previous holders (for one week only) Otago, have not held the prestigious trophy since the 1960s and 1950s, respectively; whereas Counties have never won it.
Talking Rugby Union’s New Zealand correspondent, Scotty Donaldson, predicts that "Counties’ drought will continue after witnessing how good Hawkes Bay have looked recently; combined with Counties not having replicated their 2012 for which saw them promoted to the ITM Cup Premiership."
Scotty believes that "most of the round’s fixtures should be relatively predictable; although, the Tasman, Otago match could be one to watch out for."
Competition heavyweights: Auckland, Canterbury and Wellington, are still yet to play each other. Auckland double-up this week, playing Counties first, followed by Taranaki. With only Counties’ second match being a Ranfurly Shield fixture, it is difficult to know whether they will focus on Auckland mid-week.
Auckland should be too strong. Auckland have been somewhat of a complex mix this season. Although still currently undefeated, they have not played any of the larger Premiership sides, and struggled to put away Championship minnows Manawatu and North Harbour. No doubt prioritising the week’s later Ranfurly Shield clash, Counties hand has still been forced after losing to Tasman last week. Look out for a close one!
As New Zealand play this weekend in the third round of the Rugby Championship, a number of fringe All Blacks will be removed from ITM Cup duty.
A number of the league heavyweights play away to lesser ranked teams, with Wellington, Canterbury, Waikato and Auckland’s second match all away from home.
Scotty added that "in previous seasons I would have picked the odd upset in these games, but this season there does seem to be a gulf between the top bracket of teams and the rest. I am picking relatively low margins in some of these games rather than upsets."
Waikato are still below the Competition’s highest bracket teams, based on recent performances, but Southland will need to lift their game even more so, if they are to win when the teams clash on Friday night.
The round’s two toughest picks probably come in the form of Tasman vs Otago and Manawatu vs North Harbour. Otago will still be licking their wounds after losing the Ranfurly Shield last week, and this Tasman team should still be too strong.
Scotty notes that "if Francis Sailli was playing for North Harnbour, they would be a sure bet, but since he is likely to be involved in the All Blacks squad then the Manawatu, North Harbour game is definitely in the balance."
It is interesting to watch how so many ITM Championship teams, like Hawkes Bay, Otago and Tasman, are all in better form than their Premiership counterparts.
The Premiership now looks like a battle between Canterbury, Wellington and Auckland. However, it is the ongoing Championship battle between Hawkes Bay, Otago and Tasman that is proving the most exciting.
Talking Rugby Union’s Scotty Donaldson’s picks for the round are as follows:
Auckland by 7 points
Canterbury by 21 points
Waikato by 3 points (as a Stags fan I hope I am wrong with that one).
Tasman by 14 points
Auckland by 6 points
Hawke’s Bay by 10 points
Manawatu by 1 point
Wellington by 18 points
Who are you picking to win ITM Cup rugby Round 4 matches?