Three prominent Auckland premier rugby club coaches say they are supportive of a new national policy that allows ITM Cup players to be available to them for the entire club season - including the final of the Gallaher Shield.
Auckland Rugby, in line with other unions, has altered their club programme dates this year meaning that the Gallaher Shield final will take place on August 4. As the ITM Cup will begin on August 25, the province's best players (outside of the Super 15 and All Blacks) can play in the final.
Last year, the province's ITM Cup players did not play for their clubs in the latter part of the season due to rescheduling of that competition in World Cup year. This lead to frustration at some clubs, who lost as many as nine players to Auckland. Auckland University and Grammar Carlton were particularly affected.
This year the New Zealand Rugby Union, in response to widespread dissatisfaction from many clubs nationally, have introduced set dates that on the whole ensure the different competitions do not overlap.
The only caveat to that is that the Super 15 final is scheduled to be played on the same day as the Gallaher Shield final. In the last two seasons, Ponsonby has defeated Auckland University in Gallaher Shield semifinals, the students beaten 35-7 last year. On that occasion Auckland University was missing nine players and Ponsonby four.
Auckland University coach Jim Dickin says: "It will be great to have the best players from every club involved in the competition. It is great to measure yourself as a player and a coach against the best." Auckland University will still lose players to the New Zealand Universities and the New Zealand under-20 sides.
He however sees the positives about what happened last season: "Rather than losing these players to Auckland we (feel we) promoted players into the Auckland ITM squad. Our raison d'tre is to further players careers and ideally to get them into a position to maximise their opportunities."
Ponsonby coach Mark Hooper says for too long the club game has not received the prominence it deserves in the rugby calendar, and he is supportive of the new initiative, adding that clubs benefit by knowing which players will be available and when.
"If you do know that you are likely to lose players, whether it is to the Auckland ITM Cup side or the New Zealand under-20s, then you are more able to ensure you have the depth and cover.
You never take sides like University or Grammar Carlton lightly, as they are always strong. We focus on doing what we do as well as possible and let the other sides take care of themselves.
Grammar Carlton had seven players called up by Auckland last season but have in past seasons lost up to 13. Coach Richie Harris, who is in his first season with the side, says that "while it will be nice to have all our players at the sharp end of the season... having the ITM Cup players available to us is only one part of that. The New Zealand under-20s play during the club window in June and they get preference. We may lose between one and six players to them."
Harris says only two or three of the players who will make his premier squad are training with the club, the remainder with the wider Blues training squad and the union's high performance unit. "Players will be coming and going during the season and so that in itself won't change dramatically with the ITM Cup players being available. "