ITM Cup Top 10 Individual Breakout Seasons
For many years the National Provincial Championship was one of the biggest events on the New Zealand rugby calendar. It was here that the best of the best in the country fought it out for provincial bragging rights, with great prestige being held in winning the trophy.
With the advent of Super Rugby thought, the NPC, or ITM Cup as it is now known, has become something of a second-tier development competition. The All Blacks no longer partake and players are brought into the fray very young.
It acts as the launching pad for many careers, as it is the final stage in proving oneself worthy of a Super Rugby contract.
Consequently there are always players to emerge from nowhere and have stellar competitions. This season was no different, with a handful of youngsters coming on in a big way, especially amongst the top three teams in the Championship division.
Here we look at 10 of the very best of these. Keep an eye on these names in the coming years, there is plenty of potential amongst this group.
10. Brad Weber
Originally unwanted by his own province, Otago, Brad Weber was called in to Waikato as a loan player as an injury cover early in the season. This was a move that proved controversial in the south, as many pundits believed the scrum-half should have been included in the Otago team, being snubbed for 19-year-old Josh Renton.
Perhaps these people were right, as Weber sure took his opportunity with the Mooloo men. He was dynamic sniping around the fringes, an explosive runner capable of making breaks and catching the defence unaware. To go with this he has a very crisp pass and a reasonable kicking game. His defence is generally safe too, particularly when covering.
He may have been unwanted by Otago, but Weber certainly must be being considered by the selectors at the next level.
9. James Lowe
A dangerous running outside back, James Lowe was one of the key attacking threats for Tasman this season. After starting the season on the wing, Lowe was moved to fullback after an injury enforced backline reshuffle. In this position he thrived, being more involved in the game and getting more chances to use his dangerous attacking skills on the counter.
Despite still being a work-in-progress on defence, his speed and strength make him tough to stop on attack and his ability to kick and pass make him even more threatening.
His talents were recognised by the two-time Super Rugby defending champion Chiefs, signing Lowe to a two-year deal.
8. Telusa Veianu
For the past few seasons Telusa Veainu has been something of a Super Rugby journeyman, a member of both the Highlanders and Crusaders but struggling to get much playing time.
While his provincial form at Canterbury during this time was good, he was often overlooked in a star-laden team. His move to Hawkes Bay this season has helped the winger flourish and become one of the most dangerous attacking weapons in the competition.
He was lethal with ball in hand, possessing the pace, strength and agility to slice through defences and find his way to the try-line. Indeed in a team possessing other threats such as Zac Guildford and Gillies Kaka, Veainu was often the most dangerous.
In 2014 he will jump across the ditch, to take up a contract with the Melbourne Rebels in the Super 15, something the New Zealand teams may now be regretting.
7. Gareth Evans
Gareth Evans has boasted a ton of potential for a number of years, but it was in 2013 that the Otago flanker finally became a dominant force at the provincial level. Equally effective in the tight and the loose, he was an integral part of what was one of the top loose forward trio's in the country.
His work rate is high, making plenty of tackles and rarely missing. To go with this, his skill at the breakdown is impressive, capable of effecting turnovers and it was this that was a large factor in Otago's first Ranfurly Shield win in 56 years.
However, he does have another dimension to his game, possessing a handy running game where his pace and skill make him threatening when ranging and in open spaces. His explosiveness makes him a good option at the front of the lineout too, especially when competing for opposition ball.
He will ply his trade with the Highlanders in 2014, as one of a handful of signings to come from this year's Otago team.
6. Mark Abbott
Mark Abbott was arguably the best lock in this year's ITM Cup. The 23-year-old Hawkes Bay rookie impressed with his accurate set-piece play and high work rate around the field.
He was extremely mobile and was never far from the action, effective when cleaning out at ruck time and as a ball runner on attack. His work at lineout time was good too, always a safe option and ensuring that his team won back possession in this aspect. There is not much else you could ask from a lock and at just 23 he has plenty of room to grow.
In 2014 he will link with the Hurricanes for the Super Rugby season.
5. Liam Squire
Tasman loose forward Liam Squire has had a tough time with injuries in recent times, but finally given a chance at full fitness in 2013, he has shown his true worth. His size makes him a handful at this level and will ensure he can compete at Super Rugby, but he complements this with athleticism, making him a threatening player in the loose.
He is a strong ball runner, both in taking it into contact and when running in space, possessing speed that may surprise you at first. His performances saw him become one of the standouts in a very good Tasman team that won promotion to the Premiership for next year.
The Chiefs have signed Squire for next season's Super 15.
4. Tom Franklin
2013 saw Tom Franklin go from being a good player for Otago to their best and most valuable. The lock's form was excellent this season, not only never having a bad game, he never didn't have a good one.
Undoubtedly his biggest contribution came in his effort around the field, where he was a tireless worker on both attack and defence, making his tackles and clearing bodies at the breakdown. However, he also showed his skill set on multiple occasions, capable of offloading well and also effecting turnovers at the breakdown.
His running game in the open was handy too, as was his ability at lineout time, where he was generally a safe target at the back.
He makes his Super Rugby debut next season, remaining in Dunedin with the Highlanders.
3. Maama Vaipulu
In a competition boasting a handful of top quality openside flankers, Maama Vaipulu was possibly the best in 2013. He was a key part of a Counties-Manukau side which won the Ranfurly Shield for the first time in its history, while also going on to contest the semifinals of the Premiership.
A strong ball runner, he was devastating with ball in hand but was also fast around the field and quick to the breakdown.
Unfortunately he is in a hard position to try to make the step to the next level. With the likes of Richie McCaw, Sam Cane, Tanerau Latimer, Luke Braid, John Hardie, Matt Todd and Ardie Savea around, it isn't hard to see that it is no easy task getting a contract for an openside flanker. That said, if he continues in his current form next year he will be hard to overlook and at the very least he should pick up a wider-training squad contract for 2014.
2. Ihaia West
It is hard to believe that Ihaia West has not picked up a Super Rugby contract yet. The Hawkes Bay fly-half's form has been electric this season and while a bit inconsistent, is surely worth a chance at this early stage in his career.
His best attribute is his running game where he is capable of taking the line on and making breaks from anywhere on the park. It was this that saw him score one of the great individual tries in an epic one-point win over Otago in their Ranfurly Shield challenge in Dunedin.
He also possesses a good pass, capable of holding the ball up and putting his outside men into gaps, while being a good enough kicker to exploit gaps in behind the opposition back line.
While parts of his game still need refining and he needs to become more consistent, his talent is clear and it won't be long until he is signed up for Super Rugby.
1. Marty Banks
He probably isn't the best player on this list, nor the best prospect. But in terms of a breakout season, it is hard to go past what Marty Banks achieved this year.
This time in 2012 he was playing for Buller in the Heartland Championship, unwanted at ITM Cup level. A year later he was pulling the strings at fly-half for the Tasman Makos, as they toppled Hawkes Bay to win promotion to the Premiership division.
Originally playing at fullback, Banks impressed with a tidy skill set and a handy running game. His kicking game was good too, both at goal and in field, an aspect of his game which saw him moved to fly-half to cover the injured Hayden Cripps.
Here he was outstanding, running the back line effectively, proving both a good decision-maker and a threat when taking the line on. His most memorable moment was his 100 metre intercept try in the final, which will no doubt go down in Tasman history as one of their finest.
He has been rewarded with a Super 15 contract with the Hurricanes for 2014, an amazing success story considering where he was just 12 months ago.