What's the difference between the two divisions of the national championship this season?

Not as much as might have been imagined.

A check through the results of crossover games between the premiership and championship teams in the ITM Cup gives an indication that the gulf between the two divisions is not that wide.

It might have been assumed when the cup divisions were drawn up that the quality of the premiership (top seven teams from last year) would be noticeably stronger, and produce a better quality of rugby than the seven who form the championship.

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Not so.

Of the 16 games between a premiership and a championship side before last night's Auckland-Counties Manukau game, the premiership team has won 11 times, the opposition five.

Five of the 11 premiership wins have been by eight or less points. Four were by 20 or more points. The five wins by championship teams have been achieved by Hawkes Bay (twice, over Ranfurly Shield holders Southland - but a few days before they'd lifted the log off Canterbury - and Wellington, a stonking 40-20 flogging), and once each by Otago, Manawatu and Northland.

Otago's 32-25 win over Auckland was significant. It was the union's first win at Eden Park for 35 years.

Manawatu eased past Taranaki, who have been among the premiership pacesetters, 15-10; while Northland were out of the blocks smartly and hung on to beat Bay of Plenty 30-23.

Not much should be read into the schedules. For example, Otago had five days off before beating Auckland, who had just a two-day break; but Manawatu had only three days off before toppling Taranaki, who'd had five.

So there's no hard and fast rule on that. Auckland coach Mark Anscombe has a theory.

"The one thing that really stands out is that it seems one team turns up every game, and that's the one playing with a bit of energy and belief," he said.

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It seems a tall order for team to keep up 100 per cent focus and fitness through this congested campaign. Which is why those just off the pace should not give up hope. There remain 27 games to be played in 17 days before the finals.