Tomorrow night, North Harbour Stadium plays host to the opening game of the 2005 Bartercard Cup.
Since it's inception in 1999, New Zealand Rugby League's National Competition, Bartercard Cup has seen a few franchise changes, but 2005 is, reputedly, the final season in it's current format. The plan being to reduce the number of Auckland franchises down from eight to five, and possibly expanding the number of teams from outside of Auckland.
It goes without saying that, should this plan come to fruition, there will be forced mergers between Auckland Clubs and we all know what can happen if that was to occur. I will leave it to others to ponder what might arise, if and when it happens. Let them pontificate on the future strengths of combined Auckland Clubs and how that may affect the chances and the growth of the smaller District Leagues.
To be frank, I would have thought the immediate problem was getting bums on seats. Promoting and encouraging folks to the game. Something the NZRL are notoriously poor at doing.
I, for one, simply intend to enjoy the 2005 Bartercard Cup season. To watch the young up and comers, the future NRL players, the late developers (and there are many of those who have not been netted by the elite or rep programs). They are all there to be watched and enjoyed and applauded.
First cab off the rank is the match between the North Harbour Tigers and Counties Manukau Jetz. The Jetz performed reasonably well in their inaugural season in 2004, finishing in seventh spot. The Tigers had their best season ever in the comp, finishing in fourth place. Unfortunately they were unable to go on with it in the play-offs.
I suspect the Jetz may suffer a little of the "second season syndrome" and I tip the Tigers for a first up win.
Saturday brings a match up between 2004 Grand Finalists, Marist Richmond, and last year's under-performing Glenora Bears. The Bears will be a very young side this year, but will benefit hugely from their rebuilding last year. Marist Richmond have lost some players and have a new Coach, in Sam Panapa. The Brothers to take the two points in this game but watch for the Bears coming good mid-season.
Sunday brings a host of games with Wellington up against 2004 wooden spooners, Hibiscus Coast, at Porirua Stadium. I don't really see too much improvement in the Raiders side this season and the young Wellington side should take this one fairly easily. The Central Falcons play Waicoa Bay in Palmerston North. Difficult to pick this one. Waicoa Bay started with a hiss and a roar but fell off the pace mid-season in 2004. The Central Falcons have appeared to have recruited wisely, but I think the Stallions may be just a little strong.
Continuing the Sunday action and Rugby Park in Christchurch will see the battle between the Canterbury Bulls and Otahuhu/Ellerslie. Both these teams were on the pace last season, but both finishing outside the money. Close, but I have to go for the huge home game advantage enjoyed by the Bulls. Last and by all means not least, is the game at Ericcson Stadium between 2004 Cup holders, Mt Albert and the Eastern Tornadoes. The Tornadoes are a bit of an unknown and the Lions should be strong again. Mt Albert to come away with the two points.