The 41st edition of New Zealand’s domestic rugby showpiece gets under way Thursday night. There’s a new sponsor, some experimental laws, and as always a heap of new faces determined to be the next big thing in New Zealand if not World rugby.
Mitre 10 will sponsor both the 14-team professional Mitre 10 Cup, and the 12-team amateur Heartland Championship that starts 27 August. I’ll outline that competition next week.
The Cup will again be played in seven-team Premiership and Championship divisions. Teams will play everyone else in their division, plus four teams from the other division. The winner of the Championship will be promoted to the Premiership for 2017, and the last-placed Premiership team relegated.
From Round 3 onwards, each team will have a Round where they play twice. Usually the teams playing the Thursday night fixture will back up on Sunday afternoon. These “double header” Rounds are always a test of depth and even the heavyweights struggle to win both.
Canterbury will attempt to defend their 2015 Premiership title against runners-up Auckland, Counties Manukau, 2015 Championship winners Hawkes Bay, Taranaki, Tasman, and Waikato.
In the Championship beaten 2015 Finalist Wellington will be joined by Southland, Otago, Northland, Manawatu (2015’s relegated team), North Harbour, and Bay of Plenty.
There will be two referees and the Experimental Law Variations being trialled are:
• New points system: 8 points penalty try (no conversion attempt required); 6 points try; 2 points conversion, penalty goal, dropped goal.
• Law 15:
o Tackler must get to feet then can only play the ball from his side of the mid-point of the breakdown.
o Tackler assist or first arriving player may play the ball as long they join from an onside position.
• Law 16:
o Breakdown is formed when an attacking player on his feet is over the ball on the ground, from this time no players may play the ball with their hands.
o An off side line is created “hindmost foot + 1 metre”.
o Arriving players may join from onside as long as they join from their side of the midpoint (no “gate”).
o No players may have their hands on the ground, or players already on the ground. A player in the half back position may play the ball.
This video shows how Laws 15 and 16 are supposed to work:
Pre-season matches played under the new Laws have seen some teams opt not to contest the breakdown at all, and others flooding it with players to secure quick ball. Time will tell whether one tactic or the other, or a judicious mix of both, will prove most effective.
Mitre 10 Cup – Round 1:
Thu 18th North Harbour v Counties Manukau, Albany.
Not the best season-opener and could go either way. Counties Manukau are widely expected to be relegated this year and few expect North Harbour to make the Championship semi finals.
Fri 19th Northland v Manawatu, Whangarei.
There’s a history of teams being relegated one year and bouncing back the next. Manawatu will want to add to that tradition. Northland are capable of the occasional upset but unlikely to make the semis.
Sat 20th Bay of Plenty v Taranaki, Tauranga.
Taranaki should be too strong but with some key players missing Bay of Plenty will fancy their chances of an upset. Both should make the semi finals of their respective divisions.
Sat 20th Hawkes Bay v Wellington, Napier.
Rematch from last year’s Championship Final which Hawkes Bay won by a point to earn promotion. It’s embarrassing for Wellington to be in the Championship and they will want to make their second season in it their last. Hawkes Bay will want to avoid being another team promoted one year and relegated the next.
Sat 20th Canterbury v Auckland, Christchurch.
Match of the Round and rematch from last year’s Premiership Final, won 25-23 by Canterbury, their 12th title and seventh in eight years. The punters are already backing these two for the 2016 Final and this should be a cracking curtain-raiser for Bledisloe 1.
Sun 21st Southland v Otago, Invercargill.
Southland will put up their usual fight, but even without their All Blacks Otago should take this with relative ease. Expect Otago to make the semi finals and Southland to finish bottom-three.
Sun 21st Tasman v Waikato, Blenheim.
Tasman have been a revelation in recent seasons and should be too good for Waikato. Expect Tasman to make the semis and Waikato to be scrapping it out with Counties Manukau to avoid relegation.