We’re just about at the halfway point in the ITM Cup, the heart and soul of New Zealand rugby.
The ITM Cup is still grassroots sporting at its finest and no matter where they are, each team has their own stars coming to fruition.
Here I am going to compile a team of ITM Cup players that I feel are on the rise and who you need to keep and eye on for the future.
Loosehead Prop – Loni Uhila (Waikato)
‘The Tongan Bear’ has shown flashes of brilliance in his appearances for the Mooloos. His devastating running game makes him a juggernaut which is hard to put down and his defence has improved tenfold over the last couple of seasons. He just narrowly beats out his team mate Josh Hohneck for this spot.
Hooker – Quintin McDonald (Tasman)
The young Hooker for the Chiefs has seriously impressed me this season. His lineouts have been solid and his breakdown abilities are really coming into great form. Has a great read of opposition lineouts and is a big reason Tasmans forward pack have looked so good this season. Was hard to pick over Liam Coltman (Otago).
Tighthead Prop – Nepo Laulala (Canterbury)
This young 24 year old has some of the quickest feet you’ll see on a prop in the modern game. Unwanted by the Crusaders, Nepo will be heading up North in 2016 to link up with Quintein McDonald at the Chiefs for the Super Rugby season. Solid at the scrum, scary on defence.
Lock – Josh Bekhuis (Southland)
Really impressed with his lineout efforts against Waikato recently. Some really solid scrummaging work. Has some great defence flashes but his strength has to be his running game. Looks very comfortable when put into some space.
Lock – Dominic Bird (Canterbury)
The 1st person with some international experience on this list (and not the last). The 2 Test All Black has looked to be on some great form as of late, showing all the class that made him selected for the AB training squad in 2013. Another Cantab that the Chiefs have snatched up for 2016.
Blindside Flanker – Tony Lamborn (Hawkes Bay)
Narrowly beating Joe Edwards from Auckland is this young Magpie. Able to read plays and is a solid defender. Would like to see more from him when it comes to the lineout and see him develop more of a ‘jumping 6’ role. Narrowly beat out Dan Pryor from Northland.
Openside Flanker – Matt Todd (Canterbury)
This guy should be in the All Blacks in 2016. With Richie hanging up the boots and Liam Messam heading off to Rio for the Olympics, there should be more than enough loose forward spots open to include Matt Todd. Theres every chance he’ll end up being the ‘Marty Holah’ to Sam Canes ‘McCaw’ but I would like to see him given his chance. For this list, he narrowly beats Waikato’s Zane Kapeli, Callum Gibbins from Manawatu and Ardie Savea from Wellington.
Number 8 – Akira Ionae (Auckland)
Probably not too surprising. Able to create opportunities out of nothing, explosive speed and great strength. Defence at times can be a little lacklustre but expect to be hearing this name a lot more in the future. Big future ahead for this young man.
Halfback – Brad Weber (Waikato)
What a year 2015 has been for this guy. Started off the season as the number 3 choice at halfback for the Chiefs behind Augustine Pulu and Tawera Kerr-Barlow and ended up earning an All Black cap against Samoa. Has great chemistry with his Waikato/Chiefs teammates and was picked here because of his form and combination with my first-five pick.
First-Five – Damian McKenzie (Waikato)
I can practically hear the crying already. ‘What about Lima?’ It wasn’t an easy pick for me but this is my personal ITM XV. In no way am I saying that this is the best team possible, rather that these are the players people should watch. Damian has found a great form and links up well with Weber for a 9/10 combo that most teams would kill for. Damian can also play at Fullback and is a much more solid defensive option over Lima. Versatility and consistency is what makes this list, not to mention that his goal kicking is much more rounded than Lima’s.
Second-Five – George Moala (Auckland)
This one cap All Black scored the only try in the historic match against Samoa earlier this year. With the combo of Nonu and Smith retiring from international rugby, there will be some slots available in the AB midfield and if Moala can carry on with his current form, there is a black jersey in his future.
Centre – Matt Proctor (Wellington)
Able to play on the wing as well in the midfield, this young centre has played 5 games for the Maori All Blacks so his potential is being recognised. Another person who could benefit from some exposure to the All Black scene once Nonu and Smith are gone. Ferocious on attack and a vital player on defence for the Lions. Anton Lienert-Brown from Waikato was another option here.
Left Wing – Ben Lam (Auckland)
Big future for this player if he can knuckle down. Has all the tools to be a big player. Explosive speed and power, great footwork and reasonable under the high ball. He has some Sevens experience and has an air of a young Doug Howlett around him at times.
Right Wing – Tino Nemani (Bay Of Plenty)
Big power, big speed. Very under rated in terms of attack and his counter attack game can really crack a game open. Very dangerous in open spaces and isn’t afraid to run the sideline. Needs some work under the high ball but overall, a very dangerous player when he’s on form.
Fullback – Shaun Stevenson (Waikato)
Talk about young talent, this guy has all the tools. Speed, strength, elusive and able to counter attack like a pro. Has had a great season so far and will be very surprised if there isn’t a Super Rugby contract in his future. Would like to see him try a couple of other positions-would love to see him given a crack in the midfield.
That’s my ITM XV. It may look a little different by the end of the season and it was actually a lot tougher to pick these 15 than I thought it would be. If you think you’ve got better suggestions, head over to After The Whistle on Facebook and let me know!