The grim reality of New Zealand's NPC
SPOTLIGHT: RugbyPass reporter Michael Pulman takes a look at the challenges facing New Zealand’s National Provincial Championship.
Fans should get behind the NPC more than ever in 2020, and not just because All Blacks will be putting on their provincial stripes for a much longer stint than has become the norm.
Now that the North versus South glorified All Blacks trial is out of the way, the focus should quickly turn to what is shaping up to be the most meaningful season of the NPC in some time.
It’s easy to point to the fact that some of the country’s top All Blacks are set to play provincial as the key reason for increased excitement this year, but as always, it’s about far more than that.
Despite the ever insistent push of high performance into rugby at certain high schools of popular pedigree, the NPC is still the first big step into the professional environment for so many of the youngsters that will get what’s being marketed as a privilege to play alongside some of their idols who they’ve only ever seen on TV in the black jersey.
But who’s privilege is it really?
One could argue it is the privilege of those All Black players themselves, because this might be the one and only time in their careers that they can make a genuine impact on the game at a community level.
That, of course, will come down to how much New Zealand Rugby and the unions themselves are able to work in that area while also ensuring that the competition retains something close to appointment viewing each week despite delivering it in a scenario still foreign to all.
The NPC has especially struggled in recent years from the all-important aspect of mindshare and hasn’t been marketed particularly well by either New Zealand Rugby or certain unions themselves.
That factor has been a massive shame because the quality of what’s been on show in the NPC has always deserved far greater importance, be that for the hardcore rugby fan or the casual.
For a while now, those responsible in the NPC marketing department appeared to not understand that, even now, this particular competition sits deep in the hearts of many rugby fans in the all too often forgotten rugby heartlands.
In fact, provincial rugby is the thing for these rugby fans year in year out.
There are rugby fans, larger in number than many in the rugby punditry space would realize, who care more about their club and provincial sides than whatever is happening in Super Rugby and regardless of how successful the All Blacks are.
It’s easy, perhaps even understandable, for many of us to look at provincial rugby and the pride of the game in the heartlands through rose-tinted glasses when there is so much else to consume on the rugby front each year.
Furthermore, don’t forget one very important fact. None of the rugby at the provincial level, NPC included, actually happens without the respective finances coming from Super and particularly everything that brand All Blacks trickles down.
COVID-19 and its disruption to the normal rugby calendar may have thrown competitions such as the NPC into increased difficulty on that financial front, it’s also given the competition an all-important attention lifeline which can only come from having some of the sports’ biggest names being a part of it.
That aspect has been needed for some time, but don’t underestimate the financial difficulty many provinces are in right now.
The apparent limitless buying power of teams such as Tasman and Canterbury don’t paint an accurate picture because many provinces have been hit massively in terms of finances as a result of the pandemic.
Like NZR themselves had to, many provinces let go a sizable chunk of their operating staff in 2020, and if you were to take a look at the books, you’d realise just how close it came to there being no NPC at all in 2020.
With crowds set to be ruled out for at least the first week of competition due to New Zealand being in Level Two restrictions, the financial returns that would’ve been hoped for are already taking a serious hit whilst hope remains that television brings in sizeable viewership counts to somewhat lessen their costing scenario to broadcast all the games at different venues around the country.
It’s hard to see how the unions themselves can have any financial targets for as long as no crowds are permitted through the turnstiles.
But for as grim as the financial situation will remain, and despite all the other uncertainty, fans should be doing all they can to get behind the NPC in this, a rugby season like no other.
The players certainly have, the likes of Liam Messam and Nasi Manu have dropped a lot of other priorities to come back and play for a fraction of their worth, and they’re doing that because they’ve got nothing more to do other than giving back.
Messam has spoken highly of his drive to give back to the Waikato and once some of the current All Black stars get a chance to don their provincial stripes over the next few weeks, you’ll find that many of them will treat it as a breath of fresh air.
We, as rugby fans, if nothing else, should treat this competition with the same gusto.
By Michael Pulman, RugbyPass