The 2015 ITM Cup season kicks off this week as Taranaki look to defend their crown after what was a shock triumph in last year's competition.
Few would have bet that the 'Naki would take on Tasman in the final but after respective semi-final wins over Auckland and Canterbury it would have been impossible to argue that they didn't deserve their places in the showdown.
Both impressed throughout 2014, with Waisake Naholo's performances earning him a Super Rugby contract which in time led to his New Zealand debut while Makos finisher James Lowe also shone with eight tries. He joined the Chiefs.
Barring the relegated Wellington, Canterbury will have felt most disappointed with their efforts as they possessed the strongest squad on paper. This year they do not have that luxury as several are involved with the Rugby World Cup, including up-and-coming front-row pair Nepo Laulala and Codie Taylor.
Tasman are themselves without a vital player as aforementioned winger Lowe misses out due to injury but they still boast a strong squad. It's a similar situation for Taranaki and wing Naholo while up front a lot rests on whether second row James Broadhurst stays or travels to the World Cup with New Zealand.
Despite being holders, the bookmakers do not fancy Taranaki to win the trophy. Tasman are listed above them, behind heavy favourites Canterbury. Then it's Auckland, Counties Manukau, Waikato and the newly-promoted Manawatu, who one would think are set to be without their key player Nehe Milner-Skudder after his two-try debut for New Zealand.
Not to be written off are the Steelers who, inspired by Tana Umaga's last season in charge before he heads to the Blues, will be led by superb back row Jordan Taufua. Had scrum-half Augustine Pulu been fit for the entire campaign they would have been classed as a dark horse for glory. It's worth noting they recently defeated Canterbury during pre-season.
Auckland meanwhile have backline talent in Sevens star Rieko Ioane, Melani Nanai, Bryce Heem and Lolagi Visinia while a big campaign is needed from fly-half Simon Hickey. Up front they have Akira Ioane but consistency is their issue.
Manawatu are the rank outsiders after replacing Wellington in the top tier, but without Milner-Skudder we doubt they will challenge. That's not to say they don't have quality as Chris Eves, Callum Gibbins, Otere Black and Jason Emery will threaten. They may also have Aaron Cruden in the mix should he return from injury and not be called up as an injury replacement for the All Blacks. Even his non-playing presence will help them as expect to see him with the drinks bottles.
For Waikato they will look to Brad Weber and Joe Webber to spearhead their challenge as the scrum-half and wing are two high-class players. Due to the World Sevens Series not starting until December, the wing's focus will solely be on Mooloo matters as he looks to build on his eight-try return of 2014. Unfortunately for that duo, weaknesses elsewhere could see Waikato struggling at the wrong end of the table with the dreaded drop looking like a very real possibility.
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