While rugby fans in Australia are having to make do with the Rugby Championship or watching previously recorded games, New Zealand rugby fans are lucky enough to have two months of provincial rugby to watch, in the form of the ITM Cup. Formerly called the NPC (National Provincial Championship), the ITM Cup is – as the original name suggests – New Zealand’s provincial rugby championship. Some believe it is playing in the ITM Cup that gives New Zealand rugby players that extra bit of experience that seems to make them dominate on the rugby field.
So, you may find yourself asking, how does the ITM Cup work? It only takes a one year course at your closest university to understand all the ins and outs of the ITM Cup, but to make it a little easier for all of you, I shall sum it up and save you all the effort.
- The ITM Cup consists of TWO professional divisions, each consisting of seven teams. The Premiership is the top division, with the Championship being the second division
- For those who don’t make the All Blacks, the ITM Cup is what Super Rugby players do after the SuperXV is over for the season. It also provides those players a chance to impress the All Blacks coaches, ahead of the traditional All Blacks end of year tour to Europe
- All teams play all other teams in their division, and to make things a little more confusing each team also plays four of the teams from the other division, for a total of NINE games each.
The teams in the Premiership division for 2013 are:
- Bay of Plenty
The teams in the Championship division for 2013 are:
- Hawke’s Bay
- North Harbour
At the end of the regular season are the semi-finals and final.
In the semi-finals:
- the top four teams from the Premiership play against each other (1st v 4th, 2nd v 3rd)
- the top four teams from the Championship play against each other (again 1st v 4th, 2nd v 3rd)
In the finals:
- the winners of each of the Premiership semi-finals play each other
- the winners of each of the Championship semi-finals play each other
After the finals:
- the team who finishes LAST in the Premiership division is automatically relegated to the Championship division for the next years ITM Cup
- the team who WINS the Championship final is automatically promoted to the Premiership division for the next years ITM Cup
Increasingly, Australian players are being permitted to cross the Tasman and play in the ITM Cup. Most have familial connections to New Zealand.
Some Australian Super Rugby franchise players & ex players taking part in the 2013 ITM Cup are:
- Ged Robinson (Rebels – Hawke’s Bay, staying in NZ for 2014)
- Paul Alo-Emile (Rebels – Waikato)
- Nic Stirzaker (Rebels – Manawatu)
- Alby Mathewson (Force – Hawke’s Bay)
- Mark Swanepoel (Brumbies – Tasman)
- Mick Snowden (Force – Waikato)
- Kimami Sitauti (Rebels – Bay of Plenty)
- Robbie Abel (Brumbies – Northland)
- Ben Seymour (formerly of the Force – Northland)
- Tom Murday (Reds – Northland)
- Beau Robinson (Reds – Bay of Plenty)
There is also a third (amateur) division competition which is played at the same time as the ITM Cup, called the Heartland Championship. The Heartland Championship is made up of smaller regional teams, who act as feeder teams for the larger (professional) provincial teams.
- The Heartland Championship teams play 8 games, so the teams don’t play every team
The teams in the Heartland Championship in 2013 are:
- East Coast
- King Country
- Mid Canterbury
- North Otago
- Poverty Bay
- South Canterbury
- Thames Valley
- Wairarapa Bush
- West Coast
The Heartland Championship teams play for two different cups
- the Meads Cup (named after ex-All Black, Colin Meads)
- the Lochore Cup (named after ex-All Black, Brian Lochore)
After week 8 the teams who are 1st – 4th on the ladder, play off for the Meads Cup, and the teams who are 5th – 8th play off for the Lochore Cup. As with the ITM Cup semi-finals, in the Heartland Championship semi-finals for each cup 1st plays 4th, 2nd plays 3rd and the winner of each game plays against the other winning team, in the final.
Unlike the ITM Cup structure, there is no promotion/relegation in the Heartland Championship.
So there you have it. The ITM Cup & Heartland Championship, in a nutshell! Perhaps next time I can try and explain the Ranfurly Shield…