Canterbury will be hunting a magnificent seven straight ITM Cup titles when New Zealand's provincial competition kicks-off.
Canterbury will be looking to seal a magnificent seven straight ITM Cup titles when New Zealand's provincial competition kicks-off this Thursday.
For the third time, the red and blacks defeated Wellington for the 2013 silverware at the final hurdle as they ran out 29-13 at Westpac Stadium.
But will they triumph in 2014? Here we look at the runners and riders this season, with Auckland and Wellington set to be their challengers.
ITM Cup Premiership
Last year: Third spot in the regular-season with seven wins from ten games and an away semi-final ultimately cost them, going down to a heavy 56-26 loss to Canterbury in Christchurch. Plus points from 2013 were the emergence of now All Blacks lock Patrick Tuipulotu and outside centre Malakai Fekitoa while the form of flank Luke Braid and power of wing George Moala saw them average over 30 points a game in the season.
This year: The absence of Braid due to surgery is cushioned by Jerome Kaino's return so they will be amongst the contenders once again. New coach Paul Feeney, who takes over from Wayne Pivac, will look for big campaigns from the likes of Moala and Ben Lam.
Prospects: With fly-half or full-back Gareth Anscombe not yet moving to Wales, they have two strong playmaking options as Simon Hickey returns from injury. Do they have enough as a complete package up front to win? We don't think so as it is knockout rugby at best.
Squad: Fraser Armstrong, Nick Barrett, Charlie Faumuina, Sam Prattley, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Tom McCartney, Keven Mealamu, Gafatasi Su'a, William Lloyd, Liaki Moli, Scott Scrafton, Patrick Tuipulotu, Jack Whetton, Joe Edwards, Nepia Fox-Matamua, Blake Gibson, Airi Hunt, Jerome Kaino, Steve Luatua, Sean Polwart, Peter Saili, Leon Fukofuka, Wayne Ngaluafe, Gareth Anscombe, Simon Hickey, TJ Faiane, Malakai Fekitoa, George Moala, Hadleigh Parkes, Francis Saili, Vince Aso, Ben Lam, Charles Piutau, Lolagi Visinia.
Last year: Despite coming second in the league standings, the Cantabs went on to lift the title with a 29-13 win over Wellington showing their unrivalled ability to turn it on when it matters. Milford Keresoma was the competition's top try-scorer with eight and will hope to shine again alongside trio Tom Taylor, Patrick Osborne and Johnny McNicholl. A superb sixth successive title was Canterbury's then. How do they do it time and time again?
This year: They lose Jordan Taufua to Counties while mainstay Corey Flynn departs to Toulouse so much will rest on the shoulders of Ben Funnell, with Codie Taylor backing him up at hooker. Of course they'll be without several players during the Rugby Championship but have depth coming in the form of promising talent Richie Mo'unga and Nepo Laulala, the latter impressing in Super Rugby and will start plenty of games in the ITM Cup this season.
Prospects: Looking at their squad, Canterbury will be missing huge numbers during the early campaign, with Joe Moody and Colin Slade the latest called by New Zealand. But once the business end arrives expect them to be there. A brave person would bet against them.
Squad: Scott Barrett, Dominic Bird, Tyler Bleyendaal, Jed Brown, Dan Carter, Wyatt Crockett, Ryan Crotty, Mitchell Drummond, Joel Everson, Sione Falatau, Owen Franks, Ben Funnell, Willi Heinz, Alex Hodgeman, Milford Keresoma, Nepo Laulala, Daniel Leniert Brown, Johnny McNicholl, Nasi Manu, Richie McCaw, Joe Moody, Richie Mo'unga, Patrick Osborne, Kieran Read, Luke Romano, Tom Sanders, Colin Slade, Matt Symons, Codie Taylor, Tom Taylor, Rob Thompson, Matt Todd, Siate Tokolahe, Adam Whitelock, Luke Whitelock, Sam Whitelock.
Last year: Just three wins out of ten – with the worst scoring rate of under 14 points per game – amassed by the 'Naki as they finished second bottom in last year's Premiership. Of course the absence of star player Beauden Barrett was a blow but there were a few bright notes for coach Colin Cooper as Isaia Tuifua, Andre Taylor and the versatile Blade Thomson stood out with top flight survival achieved at the expense of Bay of Plenty.
This year: They lose Jarrad Hoeata and the aforementioned Tuifua but have recruited well in the form of Charlie Ngatai and Angus Ta'avao, who will do solid jobs at centre and prop respectively. Meanwhile, James Marshall has improved twelve months on and the same goes for James Broadhurst, Rhys Marshall and number eight Thomson so they do have decent firepower. Taranaki will hope that Kurt Baker returns from injury as soon as possible.
Prospects: Another season down the bottom of the standings is expected for Taranaki, as they will battle with Tasman for survival. We can't see them avoiding the dreaded play-off.
Squad: Ryan Cocker, Angus Ta'avao, Mitchell Graham, Sione Lea, Timo Tutavaha, Rhys Marshall, James Broadhurst, Kane Barrett, Leighton Price, Riki Hoeata, Mitchell Crosswell, Iopu Iopu, Mitchell Brown, Doug Tietjens, Berny Hall, Blade Thomson, Jamison Gibson-Park, Chris Smylie, Marty McKenzie, Beauden Barrett, James Marshall, Beauden Waaka, Seta Tamanivalu, Charlie Ngatai, Sean Wainui, Kurt Baker, Codey Rei, Waisake Naholo, Jackson Ormond.
Last year: Making the semi-finals and lifting the coveted Ranfurly Shield was a remarkable achievement for Counties in their promotion year. They won six matches out of ten in 2014 – providing plenty of entertainment for their Pukekohe faithful along the way – with the likes of Bundee Aki, Fritz Lee and Frank Halai standing out. Their heavy loss against Wellington in the knockout stages should not ruin what was an otherwise impressive top flight term.
This year: The arrival of Crusaders blindside Jordan Taufua is a huge coup for Counties as it will add much-needed steel to the Steelers' forward pack. However, he must replace now Clermont number eight Fritz Lee in the back-row so much will rest on the youngster's shoulders. The backline meanwhile is full of talent – it could read Pulu, Kerr, Stowers, Aki, Lee-Lo, Halai, Nanai-Williams from 9 to 15 – so Tana Umaga will look to them to shine.
Prospects: They will be in the mix once again under Umaga's guidance as the Steelers eye back-to-back top four finishes. It is possible with a comfortable feel to this squad.
Squad: Bundee Aki, Sione Anga'aelangi, Onosai'i Auva'a, Sean Bagshaw, Adam Cathcart, Jarrod Firth, Frank Halai, Kane Hancy, Dan Hyatt, Baden Kerr, Mike Lawrenson, Rey Lee-lo, Sikeli Nabou, Tim Nanai-Williams, Pauliasi Manu, Jared Page, Augustine Pulu, Toni Pulu, Ronald Raaymakers, Sherwin Stowers, Jordan Taufua, Suliasi Taufalele, Ahsee Tuala, Jimmy Tupou, John Tu'ungafasi, Maama Vaipulu, Sam Vaka.
Last year: Missing the top four spots equalled a disappointing season for the Mooloo men as