Nature abhors a vacuum and so does a genuine rugby fan, so we shall use this rugby-free weekend to recharge the batteries and to prepare for the ITM Cup, and to be thankful for the respite before we head into a competition that somehow manages to fit 79 games into 74 days.

Not that anyone is complaining, except maybe a few of the coaches, like the one who told me just yesterday that he was considering putting his own boots on for a pre-season fixture given he was one injured player away from a 50 per cent squad injury rate. However, I'm sure he will get through, and so will his side. Besides, we've already seen the Hammers of Mid Canterbury beat Southland in a pre-season fixture. There is precedent for upsets here. And excuses.

There will be no excuses come next Thursday night when the Amber-and-Blacks will be unveiling a live bull to complement their mechanised Ferdy as an official team mascot ahead of their match with Counties Manukau. Despite the fact that not since Rory the Stag had one too many Tuis and impaled a Sky Sport floor manager on a stray antler has there been this much potential for sideline carnage, let us just console ourselves with the age-old rhetorical question: what could go wrong?

This is undoubtedly a big year for Colin Cooper's Taranaki. And beef exports.


Counties Manukau, for its part, might well be thinking ahead to the following Saturday when Otago comes calling for another crack at the Log o' Wood. EcoLight Stadium is one of the great provincial venues: it has a bank, a Scotsman's stand, a live goat, a good curry (which could be goat) and potentially the best hot dogs in rugby. If that's not enough to get you to a game, then watching Dan Hyatt and Maama Vaipulu and Onasai'i Auva'a form one of the most brutal looseforward trios in the provincial game might just get you over the line.

Hawkes Bay will be hoping the Steelers can send Otago packing, given that their match with Counties the following Saturday will then double as a Shield game. Who could forget their tenure with the log last season? That was six days they would dearly love to relive. Revenge is the major flavour for the Pies early in the season, especially as they have Tasman first up. If this comes down to a sideline conversion for the win, I'll put my money on Ihaia West.

Of course, Tasman has what no other team has. No, not a shark mascot or Marty Banks, or - and this warms the heart - Jimmy Cowan, but Kieran Keane - the best coach not coaching Super Rugby who should be coaching Super Rugby. Keane, for those that have never met him, often comes across as a gruff old campaigner with no patience for those who will not give 100 per cent. Which is exactly as he is.

Keane's sense of humour could measure the dryness of a Marlborough Sauvignon but his coaching record is no laughing matter - just look at the Tasman players he advanced to Super Rugby this season.

And speaking of coaches, how about Chris Boyd's year? He coached beaten finalists the Lions last year, jumped into a campaign with the New Zealand under-20s, is back into another season with the Lions and then will head straight into a first season in charge of the Hurricanes. Chris Boyd is either made of steel or completely unhinged. I hope it's the latter: the ITM Cup needs crazy coaches.

And it needs break-dancing ones (Scott Robertson) and brand new ones (Steve Jackson, Brad Mooar) and serious ones (Jason O'Halloran) and hilarious ones (Herb Schuler) and every one in between. ITM Cup coaches are the best kind.

And so is the rugby, in its own way. It is unpredictable and played by blokes who genuinely love their teams and play for their mates and have a laugh and share a beer with you after the game. And it's played by blokes who still have dreams of making the All Blacks, and by blokes who once did. And it's played by blokes who played club rugby this season, and bashed themselves up on muddy fields on cold Saturday afternoons.

And that's what makes it a joy to watch and to be a part of, and that's why next weekend can't come quickly enough. Except for that one coach mentioned earlier.

He pulled a hamstring running to pick up my phone call.