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No denying ITM Cup's place as a nursery for next generation of All Blacks

Date

Paul Cully

Revelation ... Waratahs winger Peter Betham playing for Tasman.

Revelation ... Waratahs winger Peter Betham playing for Tasman. Photo: Getty Images

There was a sight to cheer the souls of NSW fans and content new coach Michael Cheika on Tuesday night: a Waratahs winger, Peter Betham, frightening New Zealand defenders with his pace, power and finishing ability, grabbing two tries against the Tana Umaga-coached Counties Manukau. Playing for the Tasman province in this year's ITM Cup, Betham has lit up New Zealand's provincial competition. In many judges' form XV of the tournament, he'd command one of the wing spots: no small feat, given there are 14 teams competing across two divisions.

Followers of the game in Australia need no reminding that the third-tier debate is an inflamer of passions. There is no attempt to sail in those complex and choppy waters here - navigating the issues relating to scheduling and structure is for brighter minds - but from observing the New Zealand competition, some reasonable assumptions can be made on the impact it has.

It's helpful in the first instance to dispel the silver-bullet theory. Even if Australia had a third-tier competition running now, the idea that the Wallabies coach could dip into that tournament and find new talent, who hadn't been seen at Super level, to replace injured Test players is stretching credibility. The gap is too wide. ''We have used players from there for end-of-year tours before and found what we were seeing at ITM Cup wasn't replicated at our level because the step is just too great,'' All Blacks coach Steve Hansen told a New Zealand radio station last month.

And there have been rumblings of Kiwi discontent this year. The condensed nature of the competition - essentially squeezed because of the expansion of Super Rugby that's given Australia two extra sides since 2006 - had led some coaches to lament that their job had ceased to involve much coaching. Recovery and preparation for the next game had eaten up their time. One went even went further, saying, ''The ITM Cup is not conducive to player development.'' Certainly it has led to some poor contests, with Canterbury's 84-0 drubbing of Southland a reflection of these issues. Crowd figures, and television ratings, are also under pressure. Harsh economic realities hover in the background. No doubt these worries occupy the minds of Australian administrators, and correctly so. But there are benefits to coaches, fans and players.

The Super franchises sift through the weekly performances, watching from the stands and crunching the statistics to form an informed view of the available cattle. For supporters, there is the simple but engaging joy of ''spotting'' a youngster and tracking his progress through the ranks. And for the players, they get to build, or rebuild, their games in an environment that provides pressure but not the unforgiving glare of Super Rugby.

These are but four names who prove its worth: Betham, Charles Piutau, (Auckland), Ardie Savea (Wellington) and Gareth Anscombe (Auckland) - all of who have grown in this ITM Cup.

Betham will return to Sydney confidence brimming after an integral role in a side that loves to counter-attack. For those unfamiliar with his qualities, he has size, evasiveness, speed and an offload. He has been expert at hovering at his halfback's shoulder looking for opportunities, but has also been used from first phase to crunch the ball up in the No.10 channel.

There is always a risk in promoting young players but enough has been seen of Piutau to predict he will be an All Black. He's a big kid, very strong in contact, runs straight lines and has a huge left boot - pretty much the modern template for a player in the back three.

Savea, the younger brother of All Black Julian could be anything. Although still only 18 and 97 kilograms, he has been playing at openside and No.8 for Wellington, using his remarkable pace and power as a ball carrier and menace at the breakdown. If he continues his development at this rate, hits the 105kg mark and avoids the usual pitfalls, he might not only be an All Black, but a very good one.

But it is the case of Anscombe that is perhaps the most valuable in assessing the ITM Cup's value. The young No.10 had a difficult season at the dreadful Blues last year, and suffered the jolt of being surprisingly delisted by the franchise during his ITM Cup campaign with Auckland. There were noises that his availability piqued the interest of Australian franchises. But with his good form for Auckland - combined with his pedigree at age-group level he was picked up by the Chiefs and now will continue his journey at Super level under the wing of former All Blacks guru Wayne Smith. Such are the benefits of a shop window.

When the Wallabies take on the All Blacks in Brisbane in a week, there will be similarities between the players: all are exposed to excellent coaches - at national and Super level. But there are differences, too. And if the All Blacks keep on winning, the development path provided by a national provincial competition will continue to be seen as an important one.

39 comments so far

  • Spot on, Paul - Wallabies hopeful, Christian Lealiifano, had stints in the ITM Cup with Waikato in 2011 and has acknowledged the benefits of his being in the ITM Competition for improvements in his own game. The outcome was shown in Super Rugby this year and would probably have been the first pick at first five-eighth for the Wallabies this year if not for the serious ankle injury he suffered in the Brumbies emphatic win against the Waratahs in May 2012.

    Commenter
    Akari
    Location
    Rarotonga
    Date and time
    October 12, 2012, 9:56AM
    • Paul is however right to urge caution. Case in point would be James Hilgendorf and Brock James who starred at fullback & 1st 5 respectively for Taranaki in 2005 before joining the inaugural Force squad in 2006. Remember them?

      Commenter
      gromit
      Location
      Perth
      Date and time
      October 12, 2012, 1:34PM
    • Quite right gromit and it's a shame that the Wallabies didn't recognise Brockie's talent and experience that they are in desperate need of right now. As to Hilgendorf, is he not plying his trade in Super rugby with the Rebels?

      Commenter
      Akari
      Location
      Rarotonga
      Date and time
      October 12, 2012, 2:39PM
    • @gromit
      Brock James has been based at Clermont in France for the last 4-5 seasons and playing really good rugby. He was a victim of not enough opportunities here in Super Rugby at the time and made the decision to head to France where he has been involved in a Top 14 title and many Heineken Cup matches. He is probably on twice as much over there as he would be here if he was starting for an Aussie Super Rugby franchise (and he would be a starting No. 10 here - especially considering the calibre of good no. 10's and injuries in recent seasons). I would argue that this only strengthens Paul's claim regarding the ITM being a great breeding ground for good young rugby players.

      I have enjoyed watching most evenings more than Super Rugby this season, and the scheduling is great too (for me anyway, I am sure the players may argue that one with me).

      I would also think that James Hilgendorf would not have been a better player had he not gone to Taranaki. In my humble opinion he has been a solid (not flashy) player over many years who would have no doubt benefitted from his time in NZ provincial rugby.

      Just my opinion.

      Commenter
      Ozzy
      Location
      Newcastle
      Date and time
      October 12, 2012, 2:57PM
    • Brock James has been playing #10 for Clermont Auvergne since 2006. They are one of the best teams in the Top14. I think he has topped the league points scoring a couple of times.

      Commenter
      tpcam
      Date and time
      October 12, 2012, 5:09PM
    • Gee Gromit, you messed up there, I remember them both well. Brock James has had an outstanding career at Clermont Auvergne, year after year reminding the Force of their big mistake. Jimmy H is with the Rebels, has been injury-prone and, worse, prone to very bad defensive kicks under pressure, often landing midfield with 5-point consequences.

      Commenter
      GJP
      Location
      Perth
      Date and time
      October 12, 2012, 7:03PM
    • I guess I should have made clear that my comments about Jimmy Hildendorf and Brock James were tongue-in-cheek. Neither were really encouraged here in Perth, when the Boy Wonder was recruited he played one game at 12 with Hilgendorf at 10 and the Force lost 8 - 7 to the Highlanders and then we never saw Hilgendorf again. As for Brock James, I played with his Dad in the Adelaide comp and always thought he was never given a chance to develop here. Why? No idea. I just find it's a pity that his only serious rep footy has been for the Barbarians. Plus he is the only 5/8 I have ever seen initiate a defensive maul and stay in it. At any level.
      As Ozzy says, it isn't enough to just watch them perform 'over there' they have to get some faith here as well. Otherwise they never will develop further than 'promising' regardless of where they have come from.

      Commenter
      gromit
      Location
      perth
      Date and time
      October 13, 2012, 1:09AM
    • I agreethat the ITM is a good 'breeding' ground for the Super rugby teams which Australia apparently cannot afford to participate in. Somehow we have to target school boy teams and other teams that play at local regional centres (e.g Lismore, Armidale, Kyogle etc) to groom these players for Super Rugby teams and ultimately national teams. How can we do this?

      Commenter
      Carlos
      Location
      on the beach
      Date and time
      October 13, 2012, 11:27PM
  • We did have a third tier competition not so long ago and thats where Beale and Turner and a numbert of other players proved their worth and picked up contracts with the Force or the Waratahs or Queensland.But because of travel costs and player costs and no sponsorship the competition was scrapped.
    It all comes back to how the marketers are presenting the game to potential sponsors and how the hierachy are using the network to raise sponsors. They are not! How can an International Game have no sponsors and League played in about 21/2 countries get $1 BIO . Its a joke. Hawker has very handy blackbook where is his guiding influence. My dead granmdmother can sell Bledisloe tickets, thats the easy part filling a stadium what Rah Rah needs is sponsorship to maintain the health at grassroots and bring on the players of tomorrow. Geez even the ABC is thinking about no longer showing the Club competition. Hawker and O'Neil have to take responsiobility for this, its ok tto have past and formert political leaders in the box and captains of industry but where is the push to extract the dollars. How come league can extract dollars and be looked down on by the Union officials when they cannot raise anything meaningful.

    Commenter
    Lindsay
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    October 12, 2012, 10:07AM
    • Lindsay, Australia needs investment in time and money in the lower ranks, and there should be another tier below Super Rugby, there is no doubt about this. The sport sponsorship pool is limited and will always be attracted to the sports that give the greatest return in terms of exposure and publicity. The greatest exposure and publicity then translates into bums on seats, so their has to be the same sort of pizzaz and advertising to attract more support, and part of this is these supporters understanding the game.Trying to convert NRL or AFL supporters is hard work, because they are trying to understand the game from their code
      s point of view. Changing the IRB rules to suit the crowd didn't work and shouldn't, or the game will become a generic offshoot of League, which is the reverse of reality.

      The key to a successful third tier comp is to generate the demand and hunger so they can build a tournament around that demand.

      Perhaps the answer is to work a deal with the ITM and or Currie cup to include some Aussie teams, to generate some domestic interest, without spending a motza up front. This wont be an overnight thing, and may take a few years, especially if our teams are not competitive in these comps. The benefit of this approach is that it is a low cost way of developing new players, it gives our guys exposure to international rugby and the intended purpose of developing interest locally in some Aussie teams against our natural rivals in NZ and ZA. When the demand is generated then the local comp could be built around it and bring these teams home together with their fan base and the crowds and support needed to sustain it.

      Just a thought...

      Commenter
      RDS
      Location
      Wollongong (currently Dubai)
      Date and time
      October 14, 2012, 8:32PM

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