Rugby: Intriguing results in cup talent spreader

By Dylan Cleaver

Patrick Oshorne of Canterbury fends off the tackle of Save Tokula of Waikato. Photo / Getty Images
Patrick Oshorne of Canterbury fends off the tackle of Save Tokula of Waikato. Photo / Getty Images

Taranaki started yesterday leading the national provincial rugby premiership. In two weeks they could be relegated to the championship.

It's been that sort of competition.

Another week of weird and occasionally wonderful results has given the revamped contest several improbable storylines. Principal among them is that, with the possible exception of Waikato, it's the franchise bases that have struggled most to adjust to the rigours of the truncated competition.

Direct contracting by the franchises has left the smaller unions no longer so completely at the mercy of the "big five", which successfully used their Super rugby status to bolster their depth with players outside their boundaries.

So successful has direct contracting been in dispersing talent around the 14 professional unions that it begs the question whether rugby bosses should have waited until splitting the NPC into two divisions.

Under the old format, Hawkes Bay and Manawatu would have a legitimate shot at the semifinals, but instead have to console themselves with the prospect of meeting each other in a winner-takes-all promotion match.

That might be being wise after the fact. Given the constraints put on the ITM Cup, what we've ended up with might well be the best compromise.

Rugby bosses decided they had a maximum 12-week window. Within that they wanted every game to be broadcast live, each team to play every other team within their division, a semifinal and final system (with the exception of World Cup year) and promotion-relegation.

Most important, from a players' perspective at least, they did not want a huge chasm in class to emerge between the first and second divisions, which is what they feared would happen under the NZRU's proposed 10-6 split - a format that would have seen Mid Canterbury and Wanganui make the step up from the Heartland competition.

It's early days yet, but it appears from looking at the results of the crossover matches that that fear has been assuaged.

Even the championship bottom feeders have had their moments.

North Harbour went into overtime leading Southland, a result that would have brought the Ranfurly Shield to Albany for the second time in four years, before a desperate lunge by halfback Scott Cowan sealed the win for the southerners.

On Thursday, Tasman spent an hour giving Taranaki a lesson in rugby fundamentals before a bad 10-minute period allowed the home side to escape with a three-point win.

What these matches might lack in quality compared with the Super 15, they more than make up for in intrigue.

It has also given the NZRU some food for thought for future years.

Midweek matches have worked. More than that, they've given the competition real momentum. Sunday afternoon kickoffs have worked, rather than trying to cram everything into Friday night and Saturday (though the coming Saturday features four matches).

Canterbury, despite their struggles both on and off the field, have demonstrated one other important lesson. The biggest unions - Wellington, Auckland and Canterbury - would be better off hosting ITM Cup games in more intimate surroundings that reflect the competition's third-tier status.

- NZ Herald

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