Rugby: ITM Cup structure to remain

Counties will face Otago in the Championship final in Pukekohe tonight.
Counties will face Otago in the Championship final in Pukekohe tonight.

The two teams in tonight's ITM Cup Championship final can head into the match safe in the knowledge that winning promotion to the Premiership will mean just that.

New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew confirmed today the two-tier tournament structure will remain the same next season.

Counties Manukau host Otago in tonight's Championship final at Pukekohe as both teams look to gain entry into the top division for the first time since it was created for the 2011 season.

Tew said the structure of two divisions best suited the time-frame allotted to domestic rugby in New Zealand.

"We're not anticipating to change the structure of the ITM Cup,'' he said.

"Overwhelmingly, the feedback we get is that the 14 teams is worth retaining. [It's] not without its challenges. Two divisions is a good compromise in terms of fitting it into the window we have.''

The current structure has had a mixed reviews from players, in particular former Southland halfback Jimmy Cowan who left midseason to join English club Gloucester.

The 50-test All Black said the competition wasn't enjoyable due to the quick turnaround in games with the introduction of Tuesday and Wednesday night rugby.

Cowan said the earlier midweek games, which were brought in last season to fit matches in ahead of the Rugby World Cup, meant coaches and players were limited in their ability to train, recover and prepare between matches.

The condensed scheduling was highlighted further when Southland lock Hoani MacDonald suffered a cardiac arrest during last weekend's semifinal against Counties.

Tew confirmed today the structure of the draw is currently being looked at with provinces getting a chance to have their say before next year's fixtures list is announced.

"We're just looking at it now how we can make the draw a little more manageable for the teams who are in it ... it's a work in progress. Our people are talking to the provinces about how they would like to structure the draw for next year.''

Despite the tight scheduling and some player displeasure, Tew said fans have still been turning up with ITM Cup attendance up 12 per cent on last year.

"While you can pick games out where crowd support has been disappointing, overall it's been reasonably positive.''

- nzherald.co.nz

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