Has New Zealand's NPC become a Mickey Mouse tournament?
OPINION: Dane Coles’ stated dream is to play a match for Horowhenua-Kapiti.
TJ Perenara prides himself on playing club rugby for Northern United, when available.
Sam Cane and Ma’a Nonu have been the stories of the provincial rugby season, simply by having a trot in the Heartland Championship for King Country and Ngati Porou East Coast respectively.
Something like the fact that the community, participatory side of rugby maybe connects better with fans.
I’ve covered Jonah Lomu, Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter’s appearances in club rugby over the years. Each was huge affairs that captured the imagination of the public.
The first two poured with rain, from memory, but didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits.
You don’t have to be particularly perceptive to notice that this country’s flagship provincial competition is in poor health.
Just as it’s not hard to remember when the suffering started.
In 2005, New Zealand Rugby (NZR) sought to create an elite 10-team provincial competition. Unions were invited to apply for inclusion, of which 14 did.
To the shock of all concerned, NZR included the lot.
At different times they adamantly stated that the 14 would become 12. The sums didn’t really add up for teams such as Tasman, Northland and Manawatu but, each time that it appeared a couple of them were gone, NZR let them stay instead.
We have an incoherent 14-team competition. One in which many fans battle to remember who’s in the premiership or championship, thanks partly to the Mickey Mouse idea of crossover matches.
Time was when we very successfully ran three divisions of provincial rugby in this country. For a time there was automatic promotion and relegation, before winner-take-all playoff matches replaced them.
It always felt like there was something on games because the consequences at the end of the competition could be so big.
Now? Well, who even cares?
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When Covid first changed the rugby landscape, I argued for NZR to put all their eggs in the provincial basket. To send All Blacks to their province of origin and play a meaningful home-and-away NPC season.
Can’t get multiple teams into the country for a Rugby Championship? No worries. Just fly in one and have them tour the provinces like they did in the old days.
Underwhelmed by Australia’s Super Rugby sides? Forget them. Let’s go provincial and just see how the presence of the All Blacks develops the wider player pool.
Super Rugby Aotearoa too taxing? Fine. By distributing our best players among 14 teams, rather than five, you’ll get games where you’re not too badly bashed up.
Not engaging with enough of the New Zealand rugby community? Fear not. The scope of the provincial game means you’ll reach more fans than you have in decades.
I thought those ideas had merit then and still think it now.
But it’s pipedream stuff. New Zealand Rugby are wedded to the idea of multinational franchise footy and we’ll be seeing the Crusaders and Blues et al playing in global competitions long before we see All Blacks permanently back in the provinces.
And that’s fine. The powers that be deem that this is how you pay bills. You go big and you go worldwide and you rely on offshore eyeballs to fill the coffers.
It’s just that, while our All Blacks wait to play international heavyweights the United States this weekend, the embarrassment that is the NPC plays out before us back here.
What an expensive and unfortunate advertisement that is for our game.
We’ve seen that NZR aren’t inclined to make provincial rugby big, so let’s go small.
Let’s do away with people scratching their heads about whether it’s the Meads Cup or the Lochore Cup that’s the big one. Let’s flag the premiership opponents for championship sides and let’s go divisions one, two and three.
Let’s have combined finals days and combined promotion-relegation match days and let’s try to build some drama and interest around the provincial game.
Good on Nonu for turning up for East Coast, but let’s also try and get that union back to the halcyon days when they were winning Division Three finals or qualifying for the decider in Division Two.
The current provincial model has failed. People couldn’t care less who their local team is playing this week and that has to change.
The bigger unions don’t want to go down to Heartland size. There are too many incomes at risk for provincial rugby to be purely amateur.
It’s also hard to see a day when NZR flag provincial rugby entirely and put player pathways entirely in the hands of our franchise sides.
So if we are having an NPC, then let’s put some meaning behind it. Let’s tell poor unions and underperforming unions that actually you’re in the second division, like we should have done 15 years ago.
Then let’s see the joy from players and fans when those teams win a promotion-relegation game to earn their way back.
That’s got to be more meaningful than what we’re getting now.
By Hamish Bidwell, RugbyPass