Otago dominated the headlines of this week’s ITM Cup Rugby second round with a gritty 26-19 win over Waikato, to win the Ranfurly Shield for the first time in 56 years. The victory was completely against the pre-match SuperBru predictions and has ignited this year’s competition.
Talking Rugby Union’s correspondent in New Zealand, Scotty Donaldson, lamented that “whilst not taking anything away from Otago’s victory, the standard of most ITM Cup matches is very low compared with how I remember it in the 1990’s. Back then there was All Blacks playing and it was a far bigger deal to win games than it is now in many regards."
Is the ITM Cup now becoming a second rate competition?
As the first two rounds have unfolded, the Premiership is looking more and more like a two horse race between Canterbury and Wellington, who look far superior to any other teams. After the second round, we can begin to properly assess the forms of each team, putting last week’s first round results into perspective.
Counties Manukau looked impressive, dominating North Harbour 44-14; an amazing turnaround after their 55-16 loss to Wellington in week one. On the other hand, both Auckland and Waikato aren’t producing the form expected of them before the season began.
Otago are now certainly a force to be reckoned with after beating Waikato this week and the Bay of Plenty in week one. Taranaki, however, have had two very difficult games, losing to favourites Wellington and Canterbury, but may still be in with a small chance of the semi-finals.
Scotty Donaldson, in New Zealand, believes that “the Championship is shaping up as a more exciting competition than the Premiership”, particularly with Otago’s win bringing the Ranfurly Shield into the lower tier competition.
Otago, in their first defence of the shield, host Hawkes Bay on Sunday. Hawkes bay narrowly lost, 24-20, to the Bay of Plenty, but will provide stiff opposition. Tasman troubled Canterbury for large periods of their game, as Tasman also look set to challenge for the Championship title.
Scotty commented that “Northland’s double act of Rupeni and Rene beat a disappointing Southland Stags team at Toll Stadium. Whatever happened to Southland’s effective lineout drives and centerfield mauling? They seemed intent on trying to play Northland at their own game and it didn't work."
Manawatu narrowly lost 21-18 to Auckland, however after the first two rounds’ performances; both teams may struggle this year. We may witness North Harbour, Northland, Southland and Manawatu in a battle to avoid the wooden spoon.
Compared with the highs of the Rugby Championship and Super Rugby competitions, the standard of the ITM Cup does seem low. Scotty Donaldson believes that a number of “quality Super Rugby players have been dropping their standards at the lower, semi amateur, ITM Cup level. There have been some disgusting clearance kicks by forwards from inside their own in-goal area straight into their own team mates. Some of these guys struggle with the basics like kicking, tackling and passing."
Whilst it is great to witness Otago win the Ranfurly Shield for the first time in over half a century, we must question whether a win of that magnitude has been diminished slightly by the league’s poor standard of play so far this season. Long gone are the days of claiming the shield of an All Blacks laden Canterbury team in front of 40,000 fans at Lancaster Park.
Otago claimed the trophy from a highly inexperienced Waikato team, with only a sprinkling of Super Rugby players in front of an half empty Waikato Stadium.
Morales are top of the SuperBru competition while Brewski wins the Yellow Cap for best tipster of Round 2.
Three of the round’s seven games were claimed to be upsets, with only eight percent of tipsters picking Otago to beat Waikato.
What did you make of the ITM Cup second round? Has the competitions standard dropped considerably or has its value been weakened whilst being played alongside the Rugby Championship?