The top seven contenders fighting for ITM Cup Premiership glory this season.
Best Performance: NPC Division One Champions (1977, 1983, 1997, 2001, 2004, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011)
Last season: Champions (seven- wins, four losses)
TAB Odds: $2.85 to win Premiership.
Major gains: Ben Franks
Major losses: Ash Parker
The red-and-blacks have a new head coach in Tabai Matson but a very stable squad; bolstered by the arrival of prop Ben Franks and weakened only by the departure of number eight-cum-lock Ash Parker, who led the side superbly last season in the All Blacks' absence. Classy young first fives Tyler Bleyendaal and Tom Taylor will vie for the first five jersey, while in the pack expect big things from prop Neop Laulala, younger brother of Casey, who reputedly is a beast in the gym. With arguably a stronger squad than last year, expect the Cantabs to be flying the flag for the South Island again this year.
Verdict: Hunting their fifth successive title, Canterbury could also regain the Ranfurly Shield off Taranaki; provided the latter stave off challenges from Tasman and Hawke's Bay first.
Canterbury 2012 ITM Cup Squad: Dominic Bird, Tyler Bleyendaal, Dan Carter, Wyatt Crockett, Ryan Crotty. Andy Ellis, Joel Everson, Paea Fa'anunu, Corey Flynn, Ben Franks, Owen Franks, Robbie Fruean, Ben Funnell, Willi Heinz, Luke Katene, Nepo Laulala, Johnny McNichol, Sean Maitland, Nasi Manu, Richie McCaw, Sam Monaghan, Joel Moody, Brendon O'Connor, Andrew Olorenshaw, Patrick Osborne, Kieran Read, Luke Romano, Colin Slade, Mark Swanepoel, Codie Taylor, Tom Taylor, Matt Todd, Telusa Veainu, Adam Whitelock, George Whitelock, Luke Whitelock and Sam Whitelock.
Best Performance : Division One NPC Champions (1992, 2006)
2011 ITM Cup: Runner-Up (seven wins, four losses)
TAB Odds: $4.50 to win Premiership.
Major Gains: Piers Francis.
Major Losses: Aled de Malmanche, Nathan White, Stephen Donald, Frank Halai, Sitiveni Sivivatu.
The perennial bridesmaids to Canterbury, Waikato face a tall order to push for their third provincial championship this season. Although the glory of the Chiefs still glows around Tron country, they will have to make a title challenge without World Cup hero Stephen Donald, who played a pivotal role in their final qualification last season. His likely replacement is either former Auckland 10, England-born Piers Francis, or Trent Renata but both are largely unproven at this level. Inside them things get a whole lot better with star halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow, who was the best nine in Super Rugby, the likely spark while a looseforward trio that contains bulldozing captain Alex Bradley, the ever-improved Jack Lam and the evergreen Marty Holah will be the envy of most.
Verdict: Definitely contenders but the lack of experience at 10 means a title charge looks a bridge too far.
Waikato 2012 ITM Cup Squad: Toby Smith, Ben May, Ted Tauroa, Fraser Armstrong, Marcel Cummings-Toone, Vance Elliott, Chris Middleton, Romana Graham, Sam Kilgour, Matt Vant Leven, Liam Messam, Jack Lam, Marty Holah, Zac Hohneck, Rory Grice, Alex Bradley (captain) , Brendon Leonard, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Sam Christie, Piers Francis, Jackson Willison, Save Tokula, Declan O'Donnell, Joe Webber, Tim Mikkelson, Glen Robertson, Trent Renata
Best Performance: 3rd (2011)
2011 ITM Cup: 3rd Premiership (seven wins, three losses)
TAB Odds: $6
Major gains: Chris Smylie, James Marshall
Major losses: Mahonri Schwalger, George Pisi, Tyson Keats
Colin Cooper's squad is relatively similar to the one that claimed the Ranfurly Shield last year and look a good chance to add to their success, possibly even with a maiden New Zealand Provincial Championship. The strength of this Taranaki side is the number of Super Rugby players involved who are not likely to be required for All Blacks duty. Led by the Chiefs' Super Rugby winning captain Craig Clarke and featuring Hurricanes stars Beauden Barrett and Andre Taylor as well as former All Black enforcer Jarrad Hoeata, the Taranaki team are easily one of the strongest in the competition on paper. The addition of experienced Hurricanes halfback Chris Smylie should also provide something extra to what could be a dangerous backline.
Verdict: The Ranfurly Shield should provide some extra motivation as they could put it on the line five times in the season. If they can hold onto it all year they will be in an excellent position on the ladder come finals time.
Taranaki 2012 ITM Cup Squad: Kane Barrett, Kurt Baker, Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, Beauden Barrett, Michael Bent, Jack Cameron, James Broadhurst, Frazier Climo, Mitchell Brown, Jamison Gibson-Park, Carl Carmichael, Brett Goodin, Craig Clarke, Jayden Hayward, Shane Cleaver, James Marshall, Laurence Corlett, Waisake Naholo, Jason Eaton, Kyle O'Donnell, Jarrad Hoeata, Jackson Ormond, Andrew Hore, Willie Rickards, Willie Ioane, Chris Smylie, Sione Lea, Seta Tamanivalu, Blade Thomson, Andre Taylor, Timo Tutavaha, Isaia Tuifua, Scott Waldrom, Chris Walker.
Bay of Plenty
Best Performance: Champions (1976)
2011 ITM Cup: 4th Premiership (six wins, four losses)
TAB Odds: $10
Major gains: Jack Wilson, Kendrick Lynn, Jesse Acton
Major losses: Colin Bourke, Taniela Moa
There hasn't been a lot to speak of in terms of recruitment for the Steamers this year with coach Kevin Schuler preferring to promote players from the club system, rather than make high profile signings. The loss of No. 8 Colin Bourke will be felt by the side, but they still boast impressive loose forward stocks with Tanerau Latimer and Luke Braid in the mix, while Sam Cane is expected to spend most of his time on All Blacks duty. The significant signing in the backs sees Kendrick Lynn return home to the Bay as he looks to reignite his career after injury has plagued him for the last couple of years.
Verdict: Last year the Steamers started the season strongly only to fade badly at the back end, they will need a big effort for the whole season to sneak into what should be a hotly contested top four.
Bay of Plenty squad: Jesse Acton, Lance MacDonald, John Pareanga, Jason Hona, Tanerau Latimer, Toby Arnold, Carl Axtens, Luke Braid, Phil Burleigh, Sam Cane, Josh Hall, Lewis Hancock, Josh Hohneck, Brett Mather, Keepa Mewett, Tristan Moran, Chris Noakes, Dan Perrin, Leon Power, Brodie Retallick, Culum Retallick, Ben Smith, Pingi Taalapitaga, Mike Kainga, Kenny Lynn, Greg Pleasants Tate, Warren Lippi-Smith, Mafi Kefu, Lelia Masaga, Nick McCashin, Jamie Nutbrown, Simon Rolleston, Jack Wilson.
Best Performance: Division One NPC Champions (1982, 1984, 1985, 1987-1990, 1993-1996, 1999, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007)
2011 ITM Cup: 5th Premiership (five wins, five losses)
TAB Odds: $6.00 to win Premiership.
Major Gains: Andrew Van der Heijden, Wayne Pivac (coach)
Major Losses: Onosai'i Auva'a, Ash Dixon, Chris Lowery, Tevita Mailau, Joe Rokocoko, Francis Saili, Benson Stanley, Winston Stanley, Brent Ward.
Once the powerhouse of New Zealand provincial rugby, 2012 shapes as a rebuilding season for second-term coach Wayne Pivac. They have loss a bulk of experience to greener pastures, especially in the backline, and will hope rising stars such as New Zealand Sevens star Lolagi Visinia and 2012 Blues rookies, Ben Lam and Albert Nikoro, can step up and be counted at this level. Inexplicably Auckland has loaned Francis Saili, who was one of the only Blues players to come away with any credit this year, to North Harbour and will hope that move doesn't come back to bite them when the two rivals meet on October 7. A lot of responsibility will fall on the shoulders of 9-10 pairing of Alby Mathweson and Gareth Anscombe, while captain Daniel Braid, fringe All Black prop Charlie Faumuina, hooker Tom McCartney and comeback kid Andrew Van der Heijden will need to set the example up front.
Verdict: It looks like a case of survival for the big city boys this year and a first up win against other demotion contenders, Hawke's Bay, could prove critical.
2012 Auckland ITM Cup Squad: Gareth Anscombe, Daniel Braid (c), Auvasa Faleali'i, Malakai Fekitoa, Tony Fenner, Steve Fualau, Nathan Hughes, Ben Lam, Steven Luatua, Pauliasi Manu, Alby Mathewson, Tom McCartney, George Moala, Liaki Moli, Albert Nikoro, Hadleigh Parkes, Sean Polwart, Charles Piutau, Peter Saili, Angus Ta'avao, Joe Tupe, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Dave Thomas, Andrew Van der Heijden, Nathan Vella, Lolagi Visinia.
Best Performance: Champions (1978, 1981, 1986, 2000)
2011 ITM Cup: 6th Premiership (five wins, five losses)
TAB Odds: $7
Major gains: Ardie Savea, Matt Proctor, Ope Peleseuma, Ross Filipo
Major losses: Michael Hobbs, Neemia Tialata, Piri Weepu, Jacob Ellison
Wellington are looking to rebound from last year's poor showing that saw them needing a win in the last game to avoid relegation to the Championship division. With many of their stars out on All Blacks duty, new coach Chris Boyd has tried to keep a Wellington feel to his side bringing players up from their development systems. The absence of highly talented halfback TJ Perenara is a massive loss and will leave plenty of pressure on Frae Wilson to fill the role, while Tim Bateman looks set to spend some time in the unfamiliar 10 jersey. While Julian Savea will be out with the All Blacks, his brother Ardie looks set to be a huge talent playing at the back of the scrum and should feature strongly in an impressive looking pack. The return of veteran lock and one-time All Black Ross Filipo should bring a bit more experience up front.
Verdict: The Lions look to be a team who are still rebuilding and while they shouldn't be in danger of relegation, others are more highly fancied to lift the silverware.
Wellington squad: Dane Coles, Arden David-Perrot, Ross Filipo, Scott Fuglistaller, Reggie Goodes, Whetu Henry, Serge Lilo, Lua Lokotui, Genesis Mamea, Motu Matu'u, Mark Reddish, Solomona Sakalia, Ardie Savea, Brad Shields, Jeremy Thrush (c), Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, Victor Vito, Tim Bateman, Hosea Gear, Kayne Hammington, Cory Jane, Alapati Leiua, Charlie Ngatai, Ma'a Nonu, Ope Peleseuma, TJ Perenara, Matt Proctor, Julian Savea, Conrad Smith, Lima Sopoaga, Shaun Treeby, Frae Wilson, Jason Woodward.
Best Performance: Third (2008)
2011 ITM Cup: 1st Championship (six wins, four losses)
TAB Odds: $11
Major gains: Craig Philpott (coach), Ross Kennedy
Major losses: Sona Taumalolo, Kahn Fotuali'I, Bryn Evans
Back in the division they belong in, the job for the 2012 Magpies will be to stay there. They have plenty of Super Rugby talent in their ranks with 13 players having been involved in the last season, including five title-winning Chiefs players. Hawke's Bay have been boosted by the All Blacks snub to Zac Guildford and he will have everything to play for as he looks to prove he's worthy for consideration for international duty at the end of the year. The front row should be an area of strength with the Chiefs pair of Ben Tameifuna and former All Blacks hooker Hika Elliot teaming up again.
Verdict: You definitely wouldn't say the semi-finals is beyond this side in a competition that looks wide open, but it may be one more season before they are really ready to seriously contend for a title.
Hawke's Bay squad: Mitch Alcock, Jody Allen, Adrian Barone, Peter Borlase, Trent Boswell-Wakefield, Adam Bradey, Richard Buckman, Kieran Coll, Michael Coman, Israel Dagg, Ash Dixon, Chris Eaton, Brendon Edmonds, Hika Elliot, Tivaini Fomai, Zac Guildford, Andrew Horrell, Gillies Kaka, Marvin Karawana, Ross Kennedy, Karl Lowe, Nick McLennan, Tino Nemani, Isaac Paewai, Tom Parsons, Maselino Paulino, Tua Saseve, Johan Schoonbee, Ben Tameifuna, Star Timu, Dan Waenga, Ihaia West.