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.
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