By Daniel Gilhooly
Canterbury's stranglehold on ITM Cup rugby faces a stern test from arch-rivals Auckland in the second of two tasty semi-finals this weekend.
The five-time defending champions host an Auckland side who dished out one of Canterbury's heaviest losses in recent memory - a 39-19 humbling in Auckland three weeks ago.
Saturday's semi-final follows a Friday night affair between top qualifiers Wellington and newly promoted Counties Manukau, who have already enjoyed a successful season in the Premiership top flight by winning and retaining the Ranfurly Shield.
The NPC's two most decorated teams will meet in Christchurch, with Canterbury and Auckland having claimed 26 of the 37 titles on offer since 1976.
The red and blacks' recent run of success has lifted them to clear second on the all-time list on 10 championships, including last year's 31-18 victory over Auckland in the final at the same venue.
Since the heavy defeat at Eden Park, which came a week after a narrow loss to Wellington, Canterbury's traditional late-season acceleration has kicked in enough to qualify them second and book the crucial home semi-final.
Coach Scott Robertson has contended with a fluctuating player roster, with most of his best players either on All Blacks duty or injured.
It has allowed the province to unveil yet more depth, with the likes of hooker Ben Funnell, lock Luke Katene, first five-eighth Richie Mo'unga and wing Patrick Osborne among a host of standouts.
Auckland's first five-eighth Simon Hickey has been impressive in his debut season inside captain Hadleigh Parkes and outside a big pack comprising several Blues Super Rugby regulars including flanker Luke Braid and hooker Tom McCartney.
Wellington's attacking style was only stymied in their 10th and final regular season game last week - a 35-24 loss to Hawke's Bay.
Their best have been flanker Ardie Savea, first five-eighth Lima Sopoaga and a robust tight five as they target a fifth title and their first since 2000.
In their team that year was former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga, who is now coach of Counties Manukau.
Umaga has helped the union climb out of a financial and playing depth hole, although they are firm outsiders among the four remaining teams to add to their lone title won in 1979.
The second-tier Championship semi-finals will pit top qualifiers Tasman against Southland in Blenheim on Saturday while Otago will host Hawke's Bay in Dunedin on Sunday.
The winners of the Championship final next week will be promoted to the 2014 Premiership to replace the demoted Bay of Plenty.
Canterbury: Joe Moody, Ben Funnel, Nepo Laulala, Joel Everson, Luke Katene, Luke Whitelock, George Whitelock (C), Nasi Manu, Andy Ellis, Tyler Bleyendaal, Rob Thompson, Ryan Crotty, Adam Whitelock, Patrick Osborne, Johnny Mcnicholl. Replacements: Seb Siataga, Paea Fa’anunu, Dominic Bird, Jordan Taufua, Willi Heinz, Richie Mo’unga, Jamie Verran.
source: newshub archive