It was coincidental and poignant that the Wallabies arrived in New Zealand just as the ITM Cup was kicking off in Napier.

No doubt some of the squad reached their hotel, dumped their bag on the bed, flicked on the TV and right there on the screen was an undeniable reminder of a key All Black advantage.

The ITM Cup may have had its wings clipped in recent times; it may not be quite the same theatre of conflict it once was but it is still a critical part of the landscape. The ITM Cup is still the perfect breeding ground - it's just that these days, it is the bridge to Super Rugby rather than test match rugby.

It is a competition of which the Australians are insanely jealous. The Wallabies have been chronically ill for some time now. The symptoms are there to see every test - a lack of physical bite, no crunching presence in the scrum, an inability to perform well under pressure and a general clumsiness and leaden-footedness. The cause of all this can be traced back to the lack of a provincial championship. That might be too abstract for some but it has to be a major contributing factor.


Australia's next generation of Wallabies are currently playing club rugby. That's how it is over there - once Super Rugby is finished, that's your lot; back you go to the club competition.

On the evidence of club games played last week in Sydney, it would be some way below even the Heartland Championship. The intensity, skills, tempo and physicality were all a long way off the ITM Cup. As a development tool for Super Rugby, Australian club rugby is lacking.

The picture in New Zealand is encouragingly better. The ITM Cup, when considered purely as a development competition, is world class. There are no easy games; the schedule is tough without being overwhelming and there is a balance of seasoned professionals - even former internationals - and aspiring youngsters.

With a few exceptions, the quality of coaching is high (most coaches are aspiring to jump to the next level) and through the comprehensive Players' Collective Agreement, the level of external support and basic facilities are high.

The exposure to usually intense, demanding rugby is helpful in preparing players for Super Rugby. Perhaps of more importance is the exposure to the high performance way of doing things.

The ITM Cup gives more than 100 young players experience of professional systems every year; they learn about training demands, nutrition, analysis of the opposition, resting, mentally preparing, being on the road, rehabilitation and backing up.

As a general rule, players who emerge from the ITM Cup into Super Rugby find the transition relatively easy in the sense they are not spooked by the demands.

Whether that happens in Australia is debatable. The results of recent seasons suggest many of their players take longer to find their feet in Super Rugby.


They don't have that same longevity of exposure to high performance cultures, nor do they get the chance to test themselves as fully as their New Zealand counterparts. It's a big jump from Sydney club rugby to a Waratahs side on the road in New Zealand.

There's been ample teeth-gnashing and wailing about the demise of the ITM Cup in the past decade or so but it has now found its niche; it is now serving its purpose. Far from being lamented, it should be celebrated and recognised as a critical competitive advantage.

Australians would be mystified by any criticism of the provincial set-up here. They are green with envy and know they will probably never have a similar entity.

There was a short-lived attempt in 2006 to build a meaningful provincial competition in Australia. It was a six-team format - each province playing the other home and away. It failed to make any great public connection and haemorrhaged cash, which is why the pin was pulled in 2007. Australia can never have what so many New Zealanders take for granted.

The ITM Cup is probably valued more by those across the Tasman - they would kill for it; they might even beat the All Blacks one day if they had something similar.