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Friday, October 24, 2014

Japan Wins Super Rugby Spot For 2016 - Do You Agree?

Japan has won the right to host a Super Rugby franchise from 2016 in a new expanded Super 18 competition it was announced today.

Japan is an improving rugby nation thanks to Australian coach Eddie Jones who has helped the cherry blossoms to beat Italy, Samoa, Scotland and Wales in recent seasons and sit 11th in the world rankings, ahead of some Tier 1 nations.

Japan defeated Singapore for the spot, despite the travel logistics from South Africa which is the conference they would be associated with.  It will be interesting to see how teams deal with the travel factor and how Japan goes about recruiting some big name players.  There is no shortage of money in the game in Japan and so it makes sense for a move into the big Asia market.

Next stop, a North American team in Super 21 or Super 24 around 2020?

Do you agree with Japan joining Super Rugby 2016?  I think it is great, but I wonder about the logistics of the travel and the depth of players available for all of these teams.  There will also be a team from Argentina and another South African team from 2016.

In my opinion, having Japan will be a struggle with all of the travel from South Africa, meaning that New Zealand teams may actually benefit.  Especially since the South African depth is being tested with only five teams.  

Thursday, October 23, 2014

ITM Cup 2014 Finals Preview - Provincial Power

The ITM Cup Premiership and Championship 2014 finals are here already, we have seen 14 teams in action over 73 matches.  Interestingly in this competition, four of the 14 teams will be playing this weekend, and they are all provinces rather than the usual big city teams.  Taranaki and Tasman eliminated Auckland and Canterbury, leaving two of the traditional minnows to play in the final of the ITM Cup Premiership for the first time.      

The entire ITM Cup 2014 has seen the provinces dominate with bigger unions like Wellington, Waikato, Otago, Bay of Plenty and North Harbour all missing out on the semi-finals in their divisions. 
This weekend will be more interesting than usual when you consider that usually at least one of the finals is generally considered one sided with Canterbury usually doing the business.  Therefore, don’t be surprised if both games are close this year as the teams in both games are hard to separate.  This makes it more likely that both games will be tighter than the finals usually are.  Given that the average winning margin during the regular season was 15-16 points, it was refreshing to see three tight semi-finals and in some ways satisfying to see Canterbury lose by 20 points, if only to add a lack of predictability to the competition. 

When it comes to making your picks for the finals, plenty will depend on where you are sitting on the table.  If you are winning then playing it safe with both home teams is a respectable way to go, but I am picking one away victory.   

Manawatu vs Hawkes Bay
These two teams are Central Vikings teams (remember that?) at least one of them will get promoted this time for sure if they win on Friday night.  Despite having more big names and plenty of imported players, Hawke’s Bay have struggled away from home in 2014.  They were thrashed last time they played Manawatu 29-3, but now that the Ranfurly Shield is safely locked away, will their away form improve?  I think the Shield has actually been a curse for them with fatigue a likely factor heading into the home straight of the season. 

Manawatu is in great form having won their last five games.  This is in contrast to Hawke’s Bay who have had a real topsy turvy season.  A win for Manawatu is likely with their team of largely home grown players difficult to beat at home.  They aren’t flashy, but they are tough and uncompromising at home. 

Expect to see more Manawatu players gaining Super Rugby contracts, with Otere Black’s clash with Ihaia West a mouth-watering proposition.
My pick: Manawatu
Taranaki vs Tasman
In the other match, Taranaki hosts Tasman in an exciting ITM Cup Premiership final.  It is the first time either of these teams has made the final and there will be plenty of nerves.  Thanks to low ticket prices expect a sold out stadium for this match.

Taranaki is a team with the highest percentage of imports in the competition, but it has worked for them so far.  There is a major concern though.  In their past two games they have let the opposition back into the match after running out early leaders.  They did it with Canterbury and lost, while they also did it with Auckland which required extra-time which may have hurt some of their players.

Tasman on the other hand beat Canterbury by 20 points and I think they have better form heading into this match.  It is amazing to think that Tasman was struggling financially a few seasons ago and now they are ITM Cup Premiership finalists with a swagger of Super Rugby players.

My pick: Tasman
For margin and upset analysis you can buy the Super Rugby Tips newsletters here!

There aren’t usually many upsets in the semi-finals or finals, but there are usually some big margins, so that is something to consider.  Although what is an upset?  This season it is so hard to tell, but Manawatu and Tasman are slight favourites, but it isn’t clear cut.

Who are you picking to win in ITM Cup finals?

My picks 


ITM Cup Player Imports By Numbers - To Import or Not?

The ITM Cup is almost over for another year, but the age old question remains, should teams import or rely on local players?  What is interesting is that the worst performing team in either ITM Cup competition this year, Wellington, had the most home grown players with 87 percent, while Taranaki had the least with 29 percent.  Yet some people think that only local players will bleed for the jersey, but that theory is wrong.

I think the provinces especially still need to rely largely on imported players as they simply don't have the depth of players in their club rugby.  I don't have a problem with imported players, if they prove themselves in club rugby ahead of local players.

There is almost a correlation between size of the province and percentage of imports.  Smaller provinces like Northland, Southland and Taranaki find themselves towards the bottom of locally produced players.

Therefore, it will be interesting to see who wins the ITM Cup finals with two teams involved, Hawke's Bay in the Championship and Taranaki in the Premiership having over two thirds of their squad being imported players.  Conversely, the other finalists in action, Manawatu has a majority of local players, while Tasman is almost fifty fifty.

Graphic from www.nzherald.co.nz I think

Big Demand For Rugby World Cup 2015 Tickets

There is big demand for Rugby World Cup 2015 tickets, this is probably because England is hosting the tournament and it is more accessible to more people since most rugby fans live in Europe.

A total of 950,000 tickets to the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England were sold last month from a record application for more than five million tickets.
Tournament organiser England Rugby 2015 announced the news on Thursday (local time).
Of the 48 matches, 23 went to ballot at every price category. All 48 matches went to ballot at entry price categories.
There were 650,000 applications alone for tickets to the England-Australia pool match at Twickenham, which seats 81,605, but much less for the public.
The next matches in greatest demand were pool games England-Wales, New Zealand-Argentina, Australia-Wales, and the semifinals and final at Twickenham next October.
Also, 340,000 tickets were sold through rugby clubs in England and Wales as part of a rugby community programme.
Fans who did not receive tickets from the 18-day September sale will have priority in the next sale in November.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Should The ITM Cup Take A Break For The Rugby World Cup?

The ITM Cup is a great competition, but in 2015 it will clash with the Rugby World Cup 2015 in September in England.  Is there space in a congested rugby calendar for fans to follow both rugby competitions?

The Rugby World Cup tends to dominate the media coverage and there is plenty of hype surrounding such a massive global event, I wonder if it is worth the ITM Cup taking a break.  Surely fans will be too busy following the progress of the All Blacks to have enough time to follow their ITM Cup team, right?  The other problem is that while All Blacks usually don't play in the ITM Cup any more, there are some quality players from ITM Cup teams who will be at the Rugby World Cup for overseas teams like Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and potentially even Japan instead of playing in the ITM Cup.  This will weaken an already diluted competition!

While the other side of the coin suggests that we should continue to have ITM Cups in the same year as Rugby World Cups.  Only a handful of All Blacks ever play in the ITM Cup and that is mainly if they are returning from injury or are squad members needing to stretch their legs.  The All Blacks only play once a week anyway and with the time of games in England, New Zealand rugby fans will at least have matches to watch during normal hours.  There won't be any time clashes either!  The fanatics need something to cheer about and the more games of rugby, the better! It would also give over 300 players the opportunity to push for Super Rugby contracts in 2016.

Should the ITM Cup take a break for the Rugby World Cup?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Southland Stags ITM Cup 2014 Report Card - Where To For The Stags?

The Southland Stags 2014 ITM Cup campaign finished in the wet against Manawatu.  This year was the first under new coach Brad Mooar and while there were glimpses of potential, it was a season which saw the Stags finish fourth and lose in the semi-finals.

This was a similar result with four wins and a draw from their 11 games to other seasons, so while they didn't set the world on fire, they still deserve a pass mark.

We saw a new brand of Stags rugby which was exciting, but some great tries were overshadowed by some passive defence which saw the Stags finish as one of the worst teams defensively.

The win over Canterbury in Christchurch was brilliant and in some ways summed up their inconsistent season.  The wins over Bay of Plenty and North Harbour saw them get out of the starting block quickly before a mid season slump.  The draw against Hawke's Bay was disappointing, but also a great effort too. The Stags scored some great tries and looked more dangerous on attack than in the past.  The win over Northland was exciting and very satisfying.

Lowlights How could a team beat Canterbury away and draw with Hawke's Bay on the road, yet come unstuck away from home against Manawatu and lose so heavily at home to Tasman, Counties and Otago?  That Otago loss was particularly tough to stomach given that Otago weren't that good this season.  It ends up that Manawatu, Tasman, Taranaki and a fast finishing Counties were impressive in 2014 and while you don't want to blame the draw, not playing Wellington and Waikato from the ITM Cup Premiership was a disadvantage.

The ITM Cup is about building momentum and confidence.  This new Stags team showed glimpses of potential, especially on attack, but they lacked the aggressive defence required to be competitive.

As a long suffering Stags fan, I found it frustrating knowing that quality players like Jimmy Cowan and Marty McKenzie were starring for other teams when Southland had let them go.  It would have been great to have that pair in the Southland Stags team.  We also saw Robbie Robinson, Brayden Mitchell and Nick Barrett in action for other teams.  The Stags could do with some depth at prop like Nick Barrett can provide.  JP Koen despite playing Super Rugby is only solid, so we need another prop or two to add some steal.

There were plenty of new faces in the Southland Stags 2014 team and that probably doesn't help.  I don't mind imported players making the Stags, assuming they earn their right to play for the team by playing club rugby or are a Super Rugby starter like Lima Sopoaga.

It was interesting seeing how the Stags struggled at set pieces against teams with less experienced and Super Rugby players like Manawatu.

The ITM Cup seems to unearth plenty of new talent.  Counties Manukau unearthed so many good young players a few seasons back, last year it was Tasman and this year Northland and Manawatu were impressive with teams featuring mainly local players and very few Super Rugby players.  It was hard to stomach the Southland pack getting pushed back by other teams with less proven Super Rugby players like Manawatu and Otago.

Unfortunately I wonder if Southland club rugby has enough good players coming through to form a competitive ITM Cup squad from only local players?  It was funny that by the end of the season it was two local guys scoring tries on the wings despite all of the new imported outside backs coming into the squad.

There were a few disappointing performances during the ITM Cup semi-finals.  I thought that Stags legend Jamie Mackintosh was found wanting.  Whoppa has been a loyal servant, character and great leader, but he gives away too many penalties, including in the scrums and was also found out defensively a bit.  Whoppa does provide plenty of experience and leadership, I just think that ITM Cup seems to have got increasingly fast and open which may not suit him.  Don't get me wrong, the guy is a legend as a player, if only there was a way to lower his penalty count, although he probably does a lot behind the scenes to help the team which aren't seen by most fans.  It must be tough being Whoppa's size at times, so maybe it is just some technical tweaks that are required.

I also wonder about the future of Scott Eade the first five turned halfback.  He just seems too small on the field and was exposed in defence several times in the ITM Cup semi-final.

He has also been guilty of turning the ball over plenty of times this season with charged down kicks, kicking the ball out on the full from outside his 22 and handling errors when picking the ball up at rucks,  It is hard to know if it is the forwards fault or his lack of experience at halfback is costing him.  He has serious gas though, but it is hard to know how long to perservere with him as a halfback.

Eade joins some two or three year Stags who haven't kicked on in their careers.  We took for granted in the past when guys like Josh Bekhuis, Tim Boys and John Hardie strolled into Super Rugby, but players like Cardiff Vaega, Willis Halaholo, Michael Fatialofa and Scott Eade are doing alright at ITM Cup level, but aren't doing enough to get Super Rugby contracts.  Vaega had a season at the Hurricanes but didn't really make that step up.

Given Southland's history in producing quality halfbacks and front row forwards, I am hoping that there are some new Southlanders coming through in those positions, because seeing Southland pushed around at ITM Cup Championship level didn't sit well with me.

According to Opta Statistics, the Stags were towards the bottom of all 14 teams for carries, metres, ruck and scrum percentages although their tackling percentage and lineouts were midtable.

Good points -
Lima Sopoaga is a class act and was a great recruit.  The loose forward trio of Dixon, Boys and Hardy were also impressive along with Bekhuis.  Tuapati finally established himself at ITM Cup level, although it was a shame that Rutledge was injured.  In the backs, Halaholo was impressive early on in the season, but was prone to defensive errors, while Mark Jackman was one of the better new Stags and Junior Ngaluafe finally fulfilled his potential.  Keanu Kahakura and Bryan Milne ended up on the wings and played well while being at different stages of their careers.  Whoppa's leadership and decision making was generally pretty good.  The Stags won some entertaining games.

Hopefully this team stays together for next season and can improve on their performance for ITM Cup 2015.

I hope I haven't been too harsh on the Southland Stags.  I love this team and want to see them do well.  It is also difficult watching ITM Cup after watching the All Blacks playing as sometimes the gap in ability is heightened.

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