Counties Manukau grabbed the headlines of the fourth round of the ITM Cup by winning the Ranfurly Shield from Hawkes Bay on Saturday night.
The Shield moved for the third week in a row, to another provincial part of New Zealand to a team who will really appreciate it. The famed trophy has ignited this year’s ITM Cup, inspiring challenges from Otago, Hawkes Bay and now Counties, who have all lifted the Shield in successive weeks.
Can the Shield keep away from big names like Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury and Waikato for the rest of the season? Each of these bigger teams have Super Rugby franchises and may not appreciate the title as much as some of the country’s smaller unions.
Over the last few weeks the constant movement of the Ranfurly Shield has seen enormous crowds at some of the Islands’ smallest venues, continually watching close matches.
Apart from the last three weeks’ Ranfurly Shield games, however, the rest of the tournament has been slightly disappointing. Crowds have not been attracted to other games, with players who should know better making poor mistakes and lacking skills.
Teams seem to lack the basics of setting up play upfront first, and are instead trying to immediately move the ball wide far too quickly.
The fourth round of the cup brought two upsets for tipsters as the Stags beat Waikato and of course the Counties Manukau win over Hawkes Bay.
The Premiership competition is now even more of a three horse race with Auckland, Canterbury and Wellington looking good as the rest battle out for fourth place. The table’s bottom four teams must beat the Championship sides in their crossover games alongside their contenders.
Waikato were disappointing this week in Invercargill, seemingly not having recovered from their loss of the Ranfurly Shield in round 2, as they lost 20-16 in terrible conditions to Southland. The Premiership side could not stick with their Championship opposition, mainly through disappointing handling errors and lack of innovation.
Given that Waikato is the current home of the Super Rugby title, it may be difficult for their fans to get excited about their disappointing ITM Cup season; however, it would be interesting if they continue on their current downward slope and fall into a Premiership relegation fight.
Counties were impressive and did well to beat Hawkes Bay and stay in the hunt. Taranaki challenge for the Ranfurly Shield against Counties in a match with huge ramifications as both teams are desperate for points, not just the trophy.
Talking Rugby Union’s New Zealand correspondent, Scotty Donaldson, focused on the ITM Cup Championship, believing that “Tasman are the team to beat after thrashing Otago.
“It is beginning to look similar to the ITM Cup Premiership with three teams: Tasman, Hawkes Bay and Otago looking likely for the finals; while Southland, Northland, Manawatu and North Harbour will battle it out for the fourth spot.
“The Stags win over Waikato has given them a good chance, but they face three winnable games against North Island opposition in the next ten days.”