Campbell Burnes sets the scene for the new-look NPC, the 47th edition of our prized domestic competition.
It’s the age-old question: what is the best format for our NPC? The Heartland Championship slots nicely into its window: one table for two prizes, the Meads and Lochore Cups. There is no impinging on club rugby in this worthy and vital competition. The NPC? From 2011-21 we had two tables for two prizes, the top tier Premiership and the second tier Championship. We counted the crossover wins. They were not as scarce as we might have first thought, averaging about 7-8 per season, but they were gold. It showed there was parity across the board and it was not a true first or second division in the old thinking.
But this format copped a hammering in 2021, mainly from Taranaki coach Neil Barnes, whose team won all four of its crossover games on the way to the Championship title and a rare unbeaten season. Taranaki had some justification for calling itself the best provincial team in the land, but its triumph only gave it a seeding of eighth. To be fair, at the time, NZR had announced there would be no promotion/ relegation due to the enforced withdrawal of the three Auckland region’s teams from the NPC due to Covid-19 boundary restrictions.
The new format is imperfect, but at least every team is on the start line to play for one prize, to be decided at the October 22 final. Every team will play the six others in their conference and then four in the other conference, 10 games each. That is along the same lines as the old Premiership/Championship scenario.
Here’s where things get funky. To make the post-season playoffs, you need to place in the top four of your conference to contest the quarter-finals. Six teams will miss the playoffs and start planning for 2023. But the quarter-finals will be played within your conference, 1 v 4 and 2 v 3.
So, for example, we see the Odds quarter-finals as Hawke’s Bay v Wellington and Waikato v Bay of Plenty, with Otago just missing out. How do we come by this conclusion? Well, we look closely at all the rosters, close our eyes and attempt to read the future and how much the dreaded virus will affect the teams. Then we add a pinch of luck and hope for the best. Coaches might be telling their charges not to flat together in numbers because who can afford to lose 6-7 players a week in a bad Covid scenario?
What about the Evens’ quarter-finals? Try Canterbury v Tasman and Auckland v Taranaki, NPC heavyweights all. Then the semifinals see the victors play the victors of the other conference. Stick with me, it’s as clear as mud. Here we have gone with Hawke’s Bay to beat Taranaki, and Canterbury to tip over Waikato. Note Tasman and Auckland miss out on the semis! That leaves Hawke’s Bay to host Canterbury at Napier’s McLean Park for the decider. The Magpies will conquer their last frontier, a top tier NPC title.
Read my preview of them (pages 46- 48). They have eye-popping depth. I know you will hold me to these predictions. I cannot help think that the 2010 format was still the best. Back then the comp kicked off on July 30 and wound up on November 5. That’s not an ideal window, but you can surely always move club comps forward a week or two to allow for 13 weeks plus two for the playoffs (semifinals only). There is no need for the feared ‘Storm Week’. Players don’t mind storm weeks as they don’t have to train too hard, most of the focus being on recovery.
But coaches don’t like it. They cannot get much-needed detail and field work into their men. Some coaches spoken to by Rugby News in preparing this magazine like the fact that one title is up for grabs but still think lip service is being paid to player welfare due to having to shoehorn three games into a storm week. Why not drop the quarter-finals or start a week earlier? What is actually wrong with the 2010 format? We all know the rugby is compelling once fans relax and realise they are not watching Super Rugby or the All Blacks, so they know not to expect that standard of footy.
Furthermore, a defeat is not treated like an All Blacks’ defeat, so we have none of the associated social media angst. There are young men galore who emerge from the ranks, some you have never heard of and some who you will hear much more of. Exhibits A, B and C from the 2021 NPC: Corey Kellow of Canterbury, Keelan Whitman of Wellington and Timoci Tavatavanawai of Tasman. Some are desperate for a fulltime Super Rugby contract.
Some just want to represent their province and their club with pride. Some want to do both. Then there are the old warhorses such as Luke Romano, Liam Messam and Josh Bekhuis, who can still offer value and pass on their wealth of knowledge to the younger crop. Romano has been one of the top locks in the NPC for the last few years.
The All Blacks will be a distraction, and the fact they play at this time of year does not help crowd numbers, though that’s hardly the fault of the All Blacks themselves. Call it rugby fatigue. What about the Ranfurly Shield? Hawke’s Bay has five NPC defences, all of which it is more than capable of winning. We saw the first extra time Shield match last year, when the Steamers nearly clinched the Log o’ Wood. But we see the Shield as a powerful galvanising force for the Magpies, and so we’re tipping them to hold it for another full season, as they did in 2021.
It will go a long way towards them annexing their first top-level NPC. Many players have plied their trade in Japan or the USA in the off-season but, unlike in 2021, there is no clash with these competitions. Let’s pray to the rugby gods that the NPC finishes on October 22, as it is slated to do, and does not run into November for any Covidrelated reason. We do not want a repeat of 2021, when these increasingly powerful Japanese clubs demanded their New Zealand signings leave the NPC early for pre-season training. That was a disgrace and more should have been made of that in the media. A milestone is coming up that may have flown under the radar.
It’s 30 years since playoffs and finals were introduced to the NPC. The year was 1992 and we had already seen two Rugby World Cups with three rounds of finals. Auckland’s Gallaher Shield club competition had adopted semis and finals from 1982. Not sure what took the NPC so long to follow suit, but after the first season, people might have asked vociferously: ‘What the hell took you so long?’
Here are some random NPC playoff highlights:
Auckland falling to Waikato in the 1992 first division semi – the infamous ‘Hand of Purvey’ match
The ‘Battle of Onewa’ in the 1994 first division final
Carlos Spencer’s five try haul for Auckland versus Otago in the 1996 semi at Eden Park
Counties Manukau’s miracle comeback against Waikato in the 1997 semi
Otago’s brilliant 1998 NPC triumph at home before a packed Sunday arvo Carisbrook crowd
Jonah et al helping Dave Rennie’s Wellington troops to the 2000 NPC in Christchurch
Auckland winning the 2003 NPC from fourth place on the table
Waikato’s 2006 final win over Wellington to mark the first of the expansion-era deciders
Taranaki’s first top-tier triumph in 2014 on a stirring night in New Plymouth
Canterbury’s nine NPC titles in 10 years from 2008-17
The rise of the Tasman Mako in 2019-20 Waikato’s extraordinary rails run to the 2021 Premiership title when Covid restrictions had split its squad
New Zealand Rugby bills the NPC as the soul of our rugby. It sounds kinda trite or twee, but it’s not far off the mark. Clubs form the bedrock of our game. The best of our club talent – the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker – then get the chance to represent their unions. They meld with the fulltime pros coming back from Super. It’s a unique mix but, when done correctly, it can light up a competition. Watch for more of these fireworks in the new-look NPC of 2022.
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