Domestic rugby action is set for 2012 with today's release of the confirmed draws for the ITM Cup, the Heartland Championship and the Women's Competition.
New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) General Manager Professional Rugby Neil Sorensen said the domestic season was looking busy and exciting with a few changes in the mix for the 2012 season.
Both the ITM Cup and Heartland Championship get under way in the same weekend in late August and they retain some elements of format changes brought in last year.
This year's Women's Competition sees a new Waikato team take up the sixth spot vacated by Otago. The competition is the main selection platform for the Black Ferns squad to tour England at the end of this year. The Women's Final will also be the curtain raiser to this year's ITM Cup Premiership Final.
ITM Cup 2012
Premiership new entrants the Hawke's Bay Magpies face Auckland in the 2012 ITM Cup season opener at McLean Park on 23 August.
This year's ITM Cup runs over 10 weeks and includes seven mid-week rounds, a format originally introduced in 2011 to accommodate a Rugby World Cup-compacted rugby year.
The competition retains the Premiership (top seven teams) and Championship (bottom seven) format with teams playing every other province within their Premiership / Championship as well as four 'crossover' matches for full competition points. For each team, that means 10 matches (five home, five away) during the regular season.
Sorensen said that the mid-week rounds had been popular with the teams and fans and the Provincial Unions supported the move to retain them.
"What we found last year was that the teams loved the opportunity to play mid-week. The short turn around between some matches necessitated some teams staying on the road, effectively on 'mini-tours' which the players loved," Sorensen said.
Last year's Championship Final saw Hawke's Bay pip Manawatu to win promotion into this year's Premiership pushing Premiership wooden spooners the Southland Stags into the 2012 Championship.
If Taranaki manages to fend off King Country (27 July) and Wanganui (4 August) in pre-season Ranfurly Shield challenges, their first competition defence of the coveted Log o' Wood will be in round three against the Tasman Makos. The new season also sees Canterbury move into a new home ground, the new AMI Stadium at Addington.
The ITM Cup Premiership and Championship semifinals are scheduled for 19 and 20 October, with the Finals to be held on 26 and 27 October.
Heartland Championship 2012
Three-time and 2011 Meads Cup Champions Wanganui head south to play Mid Canterbury in the Heartland Championship 2012 season opener on 25 August.
This year the 12 Heartland teams will compete for the top four playoff spots, determined by finishing positions after eight weeks of regular competition. The four-home, four-away format of the 2011 season has been retained, including traditional derby action between neighbouring provinces.
Teams ranked fifth to eighth at the end of the regular season will compete in the Lochore Cup semifinals, while those ranked first to fourth will vie for Meads Cup semifinals.
The Lochore Cup semifinals will be held on 20 October with the Meads Cup semifinals on 21 October. The Meads Cup Final is on 27 October and the Lochore Cup Final on the following day, 28 October. The Meads Cup semifinals, and both Finals will be broadcast on SKY Sport.
New Zealand Women's Competition 2012
Waikato come in as the new kids on the competition block this year, joining Auckland, Hawke's Bay, Manawatu, Wellington and Canterbury. Their five-week season gets under way on 22 September with the Final to be played and broadcast on SKY Sport as the curtain raiser to the ITM Cup Premiership Final.
Download the 2012 ITM Cup Draw (PDF)
Download the 2012 ITM Cup Premiership and Championship Structure (PDF)
Download the 2012 Heartland Championship Draw (PDF)
Download the 2012 Women's Competition Draw (PDF)