The sixth round of the ITM Cup is already upon us and it promises to be the most exciting round yet.
Counties Manukau, current holders of the Ranfurly Shield, defend the coveted trophy on Saturday. If the prospect of a second title defence is not big enough itself – they face local rivals Waikato. The match always provides a fiercely competitive, physical game for fans to enjoy, but the added incentive of the Ranfurly Shield on the line should make the game even bigger than ever.
Furthermore, to add to the excitement of the round, league leaders and Premiership heavyweights: Wellington and Canterbury will clash on Saturday in the Capital.
Both sides are still undefeated in this year’s ITM Cup. Wellington top the table with 6 wins out of 6 and a total of 29 points, but Canterbury have a game in hand, with 5 wins out of 5, close behind with 24 points. It promises to be a big one!
Last week’s fifth round of the ITM Cup saw every game won by the home side, which meant a whole number of upsets. Surely this incredible run of home victories cannot continue in this week’s round? However, after a plethora of surprise victories and losses in this year’s ITM Cup, I wouldn’t bet too heavily against the possibility…
The sixth round began on Wednesday in Tauranga when the Bay of Plenty welcomed the Southland Stags.
The game was a close-fought affair in difficult conditions, where both sides were struggling for another win to add to their current lowly positions at the bottom of the Premiership and Championship, for Bay of Plenty and Southland, respectively.
Southland eventually overcame the higher ranked side with a final score of 33-25, taking the Stags to two wins for the season, and raising them to an impressive third in the Championship table.
Both sides have a chance to make up for their lowly positions, each with a further match to play in this week’s sixth round.
The Bay of Plenty travel to New Plymouth to face Taranaki; whilst Southland host North Harbour at Invercargill in the final game of the round on Sunday.
Most recently, on Thursday night, Auckland welcomed Northland to their home ground in search of an emphatic win over the lowest team in the 2013 ITM Cup.
Auckland proved far too strong for the Championship side, winning the encounter comfortably with a final score of 41-10. Auckland, who have now played seven games in this year’s ITM Cup are sitting in second place, even on points with Wellington, with just the one loss.
Talking Rugby Union’s New Zealand correspondent, Scotty Donaldson added that “for the sake of the Ranfurly Shield, I hope that Counties can repeat their form from last weekend's game against Taranaki, and keep the Shield within one of the country’s more provincial side.
“Counties seem to be hitting their straps as they get more of their Super Rugby players back from injury as they desperately seek a win to keep there place in the Top Four.
“It is funny to think that Waikato could end the season with the Ranfurly Shield given that they lost it to Otago who lost it to Hawkes Bay who lost it to Counties Manukau earlier this season – how the Shield has moved this season!”
ITM Cup giants Wellington and Canterbury also welcome back a number of Super Rugby players in their squad. However, with this weekend being a rest week in Rugby Championship, a number of games could be decided by how many fringe All Black players, and which ones in particular, return to their sides in the ITM Cup.
In the clash between Wellington and Canterbury, Scotty has highlighted that both “Matt Todd and TJ Perenara could play very influential roles in the game.”
Scotty added that he believes “that most games in the sixth round will be again won by the home side; hence, that is why I picked Auckland in the second game and then, for the rest of the round: Otago, Counties, Wellington in the ‘big clash’, Taranaki, Tasman and Southland.”
The final game of the round is bound to be a close affair. Southland, coming off an away win over the Bay of Plenty will be full of confidence when they face North Harbour. However, the task they are faced with may become considerably more difficult if All Black midfielder Francis Saili is selected to play.
Who will win the biggest clash of the 2013 ITM Cup: Wellington or Canterbury? Will the Ranfurly Shield go on the move again? Or will Counties manage to hold onto the coveted trophy for another week?