Counties Manukau confident for ITM Cup
August 9, 2013
Frank Halai is just one of the Counties players who stepped up in Super Rugby © Getty Images
The Steelers gained promotion from the second-tier Championship after beating Otago in the 2012 final - an achievement that capped Tana Umaga's breakout season as a first-class coach.
Sir John Kirwan and Sir Graham Henry were keen observers of the team's progress and quickly snapped up fly-half Baden Kerr, one of six tyros plucked from relative obscurity to enter the Super Rugby arena, on a two-year deal at the Blues.
Kerr said after spending eight months honing his skills against rugby's elite players that his new-found confidence was likely shared by all 11 of the Counties players returning from Super Rugby franchises.
"I've gained a lot of knowledge and experience and that brings confidence. I feel a lot more comfortable coming back to Counties," Kerr said.
"I feel like I can be a bit more of a leader. I just want to express myself and have a bit more confidence in what I do and add a bit more to my game."
Counties have recently signed former All Blacks hooker Hika Elliot, who had earlier signalled his intentions to bypass the ITM Cup after being dumped by Hawke's Bay.
Elliot featured alongside Steelers Bundee Aki, Fritz Lee and Augustine Pulu as the Chiefs secured back-to-back Super Rugby titles, and will look to push for a spot on the All Blacks' November tour to Europe with big performances over the coming months.
Hawke's Bay didn't re-sign Elliot because they questioned his value as they anticipated he would be required on All Blacks duty during The Rugby Championship. But he missed All Blacks selection and represents a quality acquisition for Counties Manukau, who will be without veteran rake Mahonri Schwalger for most or all of their Premiership campaign because of a knee injury. "Hika's leadership and experience will be highly valued by our team, especially with key players Tim Nanai-Williams and Mahonri Schwalger out," Umaga said.
Teenager Sione Molia has been brought in as replacement for Nanai-Williams, who is recovering from a groin operation. Umaga said he'd had an eye on the 19-year-old back for some time. "Now he has been given an opportunity. We think he is up to it and we will keep growing him."
Frank Halai is another player expected to star after he ended his season with the Blues as Super Rugby's top try-scorer (10). His potential was recognised with a call-up to Steve Hansen's All Blacks training camp in May.
Counties' other graduates - Rey Lee-Lo (Hurricanes), Ronald Raymaakers (Blues) and Jimmy Tupou (Crusaders) - featured less prominently for their respective franchises, but they have grown from the experience.
Add those players to a mixture of the best local talent Counties Manukau has to offer, and you've got one of this year's most exciting squads in the ITM Cup.
"Tana has sort of put it upon the Super [Rugby] boys to use that extra knowledge and experience to help lead the team," Kerr said.
Counties took the competition by storm last year, scoring 47 tries in 12 games, and their blistering pace on attack became a trademark for Umaga's school of rugby. They won five of their opening six games before slumping to consecutive defeats by Auckland, Waikato and Tasman as fatigue became an issue.
Subsequently strategies around planning and player recovery will be a top priority over the course of the three-month competition.
Pre-season hit-outs against Bay of Plenty and Northland have been used to tweak last year's game plan, and there is a collective understanding that all-round improvement is needed to challenge New Zealand's provincial powerhouses.
Losses to three of the four Premiership sides they faced in 2012 provided an indication of just how much improvement is needed.
"The reality is even though we won the Championship we finished seventh [overall]," Kerr said. "We need to be real with ourselves and be realistic that if we play the same as we did last year then we're going to go back down."
Counties kick off their season when they host Wellington at ECOLight Stadium on August 15.
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