Craig Dowd always enjoys this time of year, when young talent pops up and shows their wares.
Nothing has changed – the Bunnings NPC is the foundation, the lifeblood, of New Zealand rugby.
It’s where that conveyor belt spits out the next potential Super Rugby players and, then, future All Blacks.
We’re seeing, in this day and age, the transition from schoolboy rugby, or First XV rugby, a first-year stepping-stone and then into the NPC. That can’t help but throw up some faces we haven’t seen before, which is always exciting.
It’s not only in men’s rugby; it’s also great to see the investment put into the Farah Palmer Cup on the women’s side of the game.
There couldn’t be a more important time for our community rugby, or our national provincial championship, given what is happening on a number of different levels: A. Covid; B. the borders being shut down (and the access to playing overseas); and C. the financial situation of just where NZR is at.
Do you want to be a professional rugby player? Because the money is drying up and players need to realise that the paths in place a few years ago are no longer there. Therefore, the cream is going to have to rise to the top because there are only so many spots.
Looking forward, in terms of resources and where we need future players, the Brodie Retallicks and Sam Whitelocks, and a number of others, are very experienced, but they are not always going to be there. So we need to look at positions, especially in the tight five – notably locks.
Props are not looking too bad; there are some good ones coming through and putting their hands up.
We’re always going to be fine in the backline. There’s just something about New Zealand rugby – we like throwing the ball round and we have an abundance of talent, and someone like George Bridge highlights that. When you consider where he was a few years ago, he has the potential to kick on and be another Jeff Wilson or Ben Smith, one of those really reliable and brilliant outside backs.
I get more excited about watching the NPC from a fan’s perspective because there are no guarantees. Sure, there are mismatches where a team like Canterbury might roll less-resourced sides. But you only know where the mismatches are once the season’s started, because you just don’t know how they’re going to turn up, and what talent they are going to unveil.
But what I really like about the NPC is that mistakes level everything.
It’s not the high-end of what we expect to see when the All Blacks play with fewer basic mistakes. Teams at the lower level make mistakes. It’s the game of rugby. It’s real. Referees get it wrong. Players get it wrong. It is the imperfect game and that’s why we love rugby.
It’s a real situation and it is where you sift out the different levels of players. That’s not a good thing or bad – it’s the way it has always been.
It’s about teams getting into the position where they are able to capitalise on their opportunities when, no matter what part of the country they are in, they have the right players at the right time.
Tasman has been a classic example of that in winning the NPC in consecutive years. The Mako have benefitted from the Crusaders’ development programme and the spillover from Canterbury. The way the Crusaders have recruited is testament to them, which is why the longevity of their success has been there. Spotting talent and putting players in that environment is part of that, and Tasman has shown the resource to draw on that.
At the same time, we have seen this year that the success they have had has resulted in more opportunities for their players, and Ethan Blackadder is the latest from the region to gain All Blacks status.
It’s a good business model, and it’s a great pathway for any aspiring young rugby player to want to be part of.
Then you have a team like Otago this year, which has been able to call on 19 players who have been exposed to Super Rugby. The value of that experience, plus having older players come back from overseas to play in the NPC before retiring, ensures they pass on their knowledge to younger players.
That used to happen regularly when rugby was an amateur game. Those players lucky enough to play Test rugby came back to the clubs and spread the word.
That’s why I think the NPC has become the equivalent of the clubs up and down the country. I knew when I played in the Auckland club competition back in the early 1990s I would be playing Peter Fatialofa or John Drake. There would be international players that I would go up against every week – and this is club rugby.
That’s gone now with the emergence of professional rugby and so NPC is the place where a fresh kid, two years out of school, will get his opportunity to go up against a Super Rugby player or, at times, an All Black who might not be in the side for any number of reasons.
It is what I mean about an imperfect game. There is a bigger gulf in talent between the higher and lower levels of the game.
That’s not to forget the value of the NPC in coaching development. It’s a great stepping stone for them and 50 percent of their job is spotting talent. The fact is you can be the best tactical coach in the world but if you haven’t got the players to go out and do the job, you’re not going to win consistently.
In New Zealand, it’s not hard to be a great attacking coach if you’ve got someone who is absolutely brilliant with the ball in hand, but defence and structure is a hugely important part of the job and getting the players you can mould and coach is crucial – and that defines the best coaches.
CRAIG DOWD played 60 Tests for the All Blacks between 1993 and 2000. He is the co-founder of d3 sports strapping tape.