Above: Brad Shields, alongside Victor Vito and Ross Filipo, leads the Wellington Lions out on to the field at Westpac Stadium on Saturday against North Harbour. In a difficult season, Shields makes this ITM Cup form XV.
Opinion: The ITM Cup has reached the semi-final stages and the non-Super Rugby headquartered provinces of Taranaki and Tasman are on top. Traditional powerhouse Canterbury has been strong, while Hawke’s Bay and Manawatu have also impressed.
What about the individual players? Who could turn up in Super Rugby next season? Here is an ITM Cup form XV.
15. Nehe Milner-Skudder (Manawatu)
A big part of Manawatu’s success this season has been the form of the fullback who is the cousin of All Black Buff Milner and the nephew of another All Black, George Skudder. Nehe is quick on his feet, has an eye for the gap and has signed for the Hurricanes in 2015. Nehe is second in the competition for clean breaks (19) and metres run (796).
14. Ryan Tongia (Hawke’s Bay)
The leading try scorer with 10 tries, Tongia has been a menace for opposition defence this season. He has made 19 clean breaks and beaten 26 defenders in nine games. Tongia scored a crucial try against Counties Manukau when Hawke’s Bay won the coveted Ranfurly Shield in a tight game.
13. Seta Tamanivalu (Taranaki)
The Fijian made a big impression while on scholarship at St. Kentigern College in Auckland. He took a while to find his feet in the ITM Cup, but has just earned a contract with the Chiefs.
Tamanivalu has scored seven tries and is among the top line breakers (16) and off loaders (17) in the competition. The prospect of Tamanivalu alongside Sonny Bill Williams is an exciting one, both have offload with uncanny athletic ability.
12. Charlie Ngatai (Taranaki)
The veteran Chiefs midfielder has been rock solid for Taranaki and the perfect foil for the flamboyant Tamanivalu. He makes ground with ball in hand, chooses the right time to kick and has a long punt. Ngatai is always solid defensively.
11. James Lowe (Tasman)
Lowe had some outstanding cameos for the Chiefs this season and should retain his position in their roster after a strong ITM Cup. Lowe has run for more metres (929) than any other player.
He has scored seven tries and has the skill and shrewdness to cover fullback. Waisake Naholo, from Taranaki, who has scored eight tries, and Joe Webber, from Waikato, who has scores seven tries, have had strong seasons and are likely to be seen in Super Rugby in 2015.
10. Ihaia West (Hawke’s Bay)
West has kicked two dropped goals in the last-minute to win and draw matches and at his best he can be a mesmerising counter-attacker. His goal kicking numbers are not flash, 32 goals from 49 attempts, but the Blues pivot at his best is one of the most exciting players in New Zealand.
Marty Banks, who struggled with the Hurricanes, is poised to become only the second player to score 150 or more points in two separate NPC Division One seasons. The other was Grant Fox, who achieved the feat five times, all in 10-match seasons (1984, 87-90). Otere Black from Manawatu is another youngster to keep an eye on. He has a fine running and passing game and has kicked 34 goals from 40 attempts this season.
9. Augustine Pulu (Counties)
Pulu has been knocking on the door of All Black selection for the best part of two years and has finally earned a call up to the squad for the Brisbane Test this Saturday. Pulu is a real livewire who has scored seven tries in 2014.
His big frame for halfback, slick footwork and superior anticipation makes him a handful for any opposition. Pulu also boasts a quicker and more accurate pass than most halfbacks in New Zealand.
8. Blade Thomson (Taranaki)
Thomson warned New Zealand that he was a player of serious potential when he scored a freakish 65-metre runaway try to help the Hurricanes defeat the Crusaders in Super Rugby this year. Thankfully Thomson has taken his game to the next level in the ITM Cup. An athletic loose-forward, his all-round numbers are outstanding.
He has scored six tries and made 86 carries for a gain of 478 metres. He has claimed 21 lineout catches and made 72 tackles. Thomson might be a dark horse for a place on the All Blacks end of year tour.
7. Matt Todd (Canterbury)
Todd might be the best exponent of a ruck turnover in New Zealand. He is unusually strong over the ball and never stops working. In 586 minutes he has made 97 tackles and scored five tries with some fine carrying and support play.
Todd should tour with the All Blacks at the end of the year. Tim Boys from Southland, who tops the tackle count with 142, Brendan O’Connor who has scored six tries for Hawke’s Bay, and Callum Gibbins from Manawatu are other open sides to have made a strong impression in 2014.
6. Brad Shields (Wellington)
The Wellington Lions had a wretched season in 2014. As captain, Shields almost had to lead his team on a ‘down trou’ run around his home ground last Saturday, but luckily they won to go one and 10 for the season and this was averted.
The Lions’ poor season has been well documented, but individually, Shields did all he could to lift the team. His high work-rate, hustle and bustle and versatile skills saw him stand out. Shields filled in at lock and No. 8, but he is at six in this team. He will come out a better player next year in Super Rugby. His post-match interviewing skills were pretty good too, all things considered.
5. Mark Abbott (Hawke’s Bay)
A real workhorse, Abbott has improved his lineout play and been a hive of activity around the field making 94 tackles and 107 carries in ten games.
Abbott will again be a Hurricane in 2015 and might see more game time given his inspirational form in the 2014 ITM Cup.
4. Dominc Bird (Canterbury)
Bird has only played 349 minutes this season, but he has got better in every outing. His height (2.08cm) guarantees he is rarely bettered in the lineouts, but his ball carrying has become more dominant and frequent. Bird might be recalled for the All Blacks end of season tour.
3. Angus Ta’avao (Taranaki)
The former New Zealand Under-20 prop moved from Auckland to Taranaki to get more game-time and that has proven to be a great decision! Ta’avao has been one of the most effective and hard-working props in the competition.
He has made 49 ball carries and 87 tackles this season. Taranaki has won more tightheads (16) than any other team. Ta’avao’s power in the scrum has been a big part of this.
2. Codie Taylor (Canterbury)
Used as a starter and bench player, the former New Zealand Under-20 representative has impressed with his aggressive ball carrying. He has scored three tries and proven a source of ‘go-forward’ for Canterbury. Taylor is strong in the scrums and had improved his throwing.
1. Tim Perry (Tasman)
Tasman has had one of the most stable scrums in the competition and a big reason for this is the contribution of the Blues veteran. Perry is not flashy, but he hits rucks with aggression and has troubled every tighthead he has marked. Tasman has won 14 tightheads this season, second only to Taranaki.