This important competition for New Zealand Rugby Union has been closely followed by Talking Rugby Union this year with great rugby insight from Scotty Donaldson.
The ITM Cup 2013 semi-finals are here already. This competition seems so short compared to the Super Rugby 2013. The semi-finalists have been determined.
Before the season started, Scotty predicted seven of these eight semi-finalists, with the Tasman Makos the only team to upset the apple cart. The problem with the ITM Cup Premiership is that although there is a salary cap in place, only the bigger more wealthy unions can afford to go anywhere near it.
Other provinces like Southland, Otago and Tasman have tried, but it was simply not sustainable! That is in many ways what makes the ITM Cup Championship more exciting, although most of the 2012 semi-finalists have made the 2013 semi-finals.
The ITM Cup Premiership in 2013 has a similar look to it with the top three teams being the usual suspects of Wellington, Canterbury and Auckland, but Counties are taking the place of Taranaki from last season.
It would be great to see Counties not only hold the Ranfurly Shield, but also the ITM Cup Premiership trophy at the end of the season, but surely the Wellington Lions will do the business at home this weekend. Hawke's Bay probably did Counties no favours by beating the Wellington Lions last week and that will definitely have kicked any complacency into touch.
Canterbury will host Auckland and should make amends for their round robin defeat in Auckland. Auckland have got the skids late in the season and you will think that Canterbury should be too strong. Both teams welcome back experience, with Luke Braid returning to offset the return from injury of Andy Ellis and Dominic Bird.
For Scotty, the Championship match between Otago and Hawke's Bay is the most exciting of the weekend. Hawke's Bay thought they had banked a home semi-final with last week's win over Wellington, but Otago leap frogged them courtesy of an upset win of their own against Auckland.
Otago will want to reverse their round robin defeat which saw them lose the Ranfurly Shield in an epic match. One thing is for sure, the battle between young guns Ihaia West and Hayden Parker will be worth the price of admission alone. These players are two of the highest points scorers in the competition.
It is an interesting battle since Hawke's Bay on paper at least have the better side, but Otago with not as many household names have played well as a team. Wouldn't it have been brilliant to have this match as a curtain raiser to the All Blacks vs Wallabies match?
Speaking of gelling well as a team, the Tasman Makos defied pre ITM Cup predictions and finished top of the ITM Championship. This team didn't feature many big names going into this season, but now boast plenty of Super Rugby talent who have been signed up for the 2014 season. They have turned a bunch of relative no names into an outstanding attacking and defensive team.
They remind Scotty of Counties from 2012 with the way they have dominated not only Championship teams but also some Premiership teams. The Stags have been disappointing this season, but like last season they still did just enough to crawl into the semi-finals.
"I guess it is satisfactory to make the play-offs, but with the exception of a mid season revival which showed what they were trying to do early in the season, this team with plenty of Super Rugby talent and experience in the forwards and sprinkling of young Auckland, Fijian or local talent has been disappointing," Scotty told Talking Rugby Union.
Last week's loss to Counties was as painful as some of their early season defeats. The Stags will be major underdogs in this game and if both teams keep playing the way they have been then Tasman should win easily.
Southland's only chance is if they realise they have nothing to lose and relax allowing players like Robbie Robinson into the game and stop making some shocking mistakes which have reminded me of schoolboy rugby. Tasman does have the pressure on them in many ways as they are expected to win well.
Scotty thinks they will win well here.
In the SuperBru Super Rugby Tips competition Morales is still out in front, so get your picks in and see if you can win first prize. It is double points for picking a winner this weekend.
"In my opinion, Wellington, Canterbury and Tasman should all win, with the margin in the Tasman vs Southland game potentially being a blow out.
"I am going for Hawke's Bay against Otago although this match could go either way, but Hawke's Bay did beat Otago in Round Robin at the same venue.
"Tasman, Otago and Hawke's Bay have been impressive this season and would have easily fitted in well to the ITM Cup Premiership," Scotty summed up before giving us his predictions.
"My ITM Cup semi-final picks:
Wellington by 14 points
Canterbury by 10 points
Hawke's Bay by 3 points
Tasman by 30 points."