The 2014 ITM Cup kicks off on tonight with Taranaki v Counties-Manukau.
We look at how the NZ TAB have rated this season’s contenders
Canterbury ($2.25 to win Premiership)
Six consecutive ITM Cup titles give Canterbury our favourites tag at $2.25.
Even with a big host of All Blacks unavailable, the core group from the Crusaders and last year’s ITM squad, as well as U20 talent, will keep them in good stead.
The mixture of proven experience and sophomore talent like Mitchell Drummond, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Codie Taylor and Richie Mo’unga looks promising.
It does however look like they’ve got a lot more youngsters than previous years, and they have lost George Whitelock, Corey Flynn, Andy Ellis and Tyler Bleyendaal for 2014.
Seven in a row? The bookies think so.
Hit by an injury crisis, it’s now up to Wellington’s much lauded club scene to come to the rescue.
There’s no shortage of Super talent, and coach Chris Boyd should be able to call on former or fringe All Blacks for much of the season.
Brad Shields is one such player, named captain this year, as well as John Schwalger, Motu Matu’u and Ross Filipo.
Upper Hutt old boy Jason Woodward has returned home from Melbourne and will be one to watch for top tryscorer.
Second favourite to take out the Premiership at $3.75.
With the amount of talent leaving the province, Auckland could be the new Wellington.
Players are seeking opportunities at smaller unions, but such is the embarrassment of riches that even with seven of their best on All Blacks duty, they still have a top-class team.
First five Simon Hickey should prove deadly at this level, especially with George Moala, Ben Lam and new recruit Francis Saili outside him.
Punters should take a close look at the form of their tight five early in the tournament, as that will determine whether they’re the real deal or also-rans for the Premiership title.
The Steelers are no longer the new kids in the Premiership.
The current Ranfurly Shield holders earned a semi-final berth alongside the big three of Canterbury, Auckland and Wellington last year.
Jordan Taufua has moved up from Canterbury, and they’ve retained Super players including Bundee Aki, Jimmy Tupou, Tim Nanai-Williams and Baden Kerr.
They’re favourites ($1.62) in the season’s opening match against Taranaki ($2.20) in New Plymouth on Thursday.
Tasman had a fairytale 2013 season, running through all-comers on their way to the Championship title.
Now they find themselves as the smallest union by far amongst the Premiership.
Possibly the biggest boost for the team has been in the off-season, where a host of players had standout Super Rugby seasons, including Liam Squire, Shane Christie, James Lowe, Tom Marshall and Joe Wheeler.
Only fringe players from last season have departed, while signings have included Jimmy Cowan and South African prop Ross Geldenhuys. They’re a long shot to take out the Premiership at $10, but will be tough at home although the step up in competition might test the depth of the squad.
The Waikato ITM Cup team appears to have much closer links with their local club scene than the Super Rugby behemoth that is the Chiefs, who have found much success importing talent from the South Island.
Coming fifth in the Premiership last year, Waikato again have a mixed squad, with good gains in the pack (J. Hohneck, Katene, Holah) to match those leaving (Vant Leven, Lam, Grice).
Coach John Walters will be hoping that Ben Tameifuna doesn’t get an AB’s call-up, and if the defence of his young backs improves then you can be guaranteed this team will rack up big scores as they counter attack from anywhere.
After a dismal 2013 season where they registered only 2 wins, Taranaki have recruited well, bringing in Charlie Ngatai, Marty McKenzie and Angus Ta’avao.
Even with Beauden Barrett away on AB’s duty, the Gibson-Park/Marshall halves combination looks promising.
Although now aligned with the Chiefs, they have a host of standout Hurricanes including James Broadhurst and Blade Thomson.
Guaranteed to perform better than last year, and at $17 are great value as the bottom placed Premiership side.
The blue and golds had an up and down season in 2013, perhaps captured best in their week long hero to zero Ranfurly Shield tenure.
In saying that, Tony Brown has sown the seeds for an excellent homegrown squad.
Influential captain Paul Grant is now overseas, but in Charlie O’Connell, Lee Allan and Hugh Blake they have a solid loose trio.
Trent Renata of Chiefs fame joins the midfield and Liam Coltman will be fired up after a stop-start Super season.
The lack of big names here belies a cohesive team who are well trained, and as such they are our second favourite to take the Championship at $3.25.
Hawke’s Bay ($2.75)
Can HB’s newly minted Super players replace the exodus of talent in the offseason?
The answer would be yes, as although Guildford, Mathewson, Veainu, and hard men Mike Coman and Karl Kowe have departed, Barracuda Buckman, Brendan O’Connor (c), Gareth Evans, Ihaia West, Ged Robinson and Mark Abbott should all be primed at this level.
Magpie fans will be excited about the perfect-storm midfield duo signing of Jason Shoemark and Robbie Fruean.
Championship favourites at $2.75 and rightly so.
Local legends Hoani MacDonald and Clarke Dermody will assist new coach Brad Mooar in 2014.
He’s made a very astute signing this year in Highlander’s first-five Lima Sopoaga.
In 2013 they sorely lacked attacking flair, often getting into range with their forward pack, but unable to get across the line.
Sopoaga looks to be the solution here, feeding a hopefully fit Cardiff Vaega and Willis Halaholo.
Scott Eade carried the halves last year but if he’s left to develop his halfback game the side will be all the better for it. Plenty of new names mean Southland should be solid at home but may struggle away.
Bay of Plenty ($5.50)
Their golden run amongst the Premiership big dogs from 2010-12 came to a crashing halt last year when they chalked up just one win, albeit against Hawke’s Bay to retain the title of ‘The Bay.’
Back in the Championship, they’ve kept it local with recruitment.
This team is a team that will punch well above their weight with aggression across the park. Kane Hames, Nathan Harris and Joe Royal should provide a great platform with captain Culum Retallick in behind them.
However with club rugby up-an-comers fighting for first five, will they have the attacking direction needed to hit a .500 record this season?
The bookies think so, being reasonably short at $5.50 to take out the Championship.
A read through their teamlist reveals a mixture of young prospects and old heads that should make North Harbour a dangerous team.
This has been the case in the last couple of years, where they still failed to deliver, but one suspects the balance is right this year.
The player losses have been few, and players like Tevita Li, Pita Ahki and Bryn Hall have earned a decent amount of Blues caps.
However with Tony Woodcock out with shoulder injury and Ben Afeaki still suffering concussion symptoms, the bookends either side of standout captain James Parsons will face a real test.
The surprise signing is 74 cap Waratahs first-five Daniel Halangahu. Good value at $12 to take out the Championship, could cause upsets.
With the core of their 2013 squad retained, the Turbos will be looking to go one better in 2014 by nailing a semi-final spot, which is well within their grasp.
Last year they came close to a historic win over Auckland that could have tipped their season from average to excellent.
Under 20’s prop Tim Cadwallader will pull on the green jersey for the first time and will bolster a strong forward pack.
With the Aaron’s away on All Blacks duty, it’s up to Papa Wharewere and Jade Te Rure to ensure Nehe Milner-Skudder gets space outside.
$12 to win the Championship.
If you were to judge a team by their mascots, then Northland would be national champions, having both Tane Mahuta and the Taniwha emblazoning their jersey.
However with key players Rene Ranger, Bronson Murray and Derek Carpenter departing at the end of last season, coach Derren Whitcombe will need to quickly bring his 16 new caps up to speed, including the incoming Winston Stanley.
Expect a big season from loosies Kara Pryor and Cam Eyre, who return from Auckland and France respectively, as well as goal-kicking first-five Dan Hawkins.
The Taniwha will get their share of upsets but look too green to challenge for promotion.