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The indisputable problem with the NPC

By Michael Pulman
Jonathan Ruru, Jack Whetton and Harry Plummer. (Photo by Andrew Cornaga/Photosport)

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Rebrand it to whatever you like, but the NPC still has a major problem.

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Do you remember the last time NPC rugby captured any semblance of the national sporting conversation? How about the last time a sellout crowd attended a Ranfurly Shield match in one of the major stadiums?

You’re probably scratching your head a little with that one, and that’s ok, because this is not exactly a new question.

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Dave Rennie and Michael Hooper spoke to the media ahead of their Bledisloe Cup clash with the All Blacks.
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Dave Rennie and Michael Hooper spoke to the media ahead of their Bledisloe Cup clash with the All Blacks.

Nor is it the easy fix many would make out as this is an issue that is becoming more apparent by the year in Super Rugby also. Crowds are thinning out, mainstream interest is more than dwindling and, as always, it appears the powers that be are insistent on keeping with the same old same old.

If Super Rugby was the beginning of New Zealand’s professional rugby era, it took little over a decade to show that this era wasn’t going to be kind to the NPC in terms of the finances.

2020’s provincial season might have been a glimmer of hope, when a who’s who of New Zealand’s top talent were pulling on their provincial blazers, but it feels like nothing but false hope now.

Aside from a few All Black hand-me-downs who aren’t quite at the level of Ian Foster’s liking, like TJ Perenara who’s clearly a way off since returning from Japan, the NPC will be made up mostly of players either getting their first taste of professional rugby, those into their second or third seasons on the grind, or a handful of old greats who’re far past their prime.

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There’s also kiwi NRL superstar turned All Black hopeful Roger Tuivasa-Sheck suiting up for Auckland, but let’s not pretend this is some sort of coup for the NPC. In the case of the former Warrior, this is all about using a season with Auckland as a stepping-stone for something far greater, most likely to never be seen again.

The Auckland rugby union knows it, as do the fans, and while some may say that Tuivasa-Sheck being a part of the competition does its part to increase attention, they could well be right for all the wrong reasons.

Also, just while we’re talking about the plight of Tuivasa-Sheck, are we really going to argue that his performances in NPC will dramatically increase or reduce his chances of being an All Black?

What made the opening few weeks of last year’s competition so great was that it gave rugby fans a rare chance to see their actual All Black idols in action without having to pay the premium price of admission to a test match.

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It felt so much like the good days of old, the names you knew were playing alongside the ones coming through the system. Speak to those All Blacks and they’ll all tell you they loved the opportunity to play provincial footy and longed for it to continue.

What we’ve got a year later is a return to the stale competition the NPC was prior to that brief reprieve.

One would loath to be a communications guru or an engagement specialist trying to conjure up an idea to get fans into the stands. They’re aware of its history and place in the national game but trying to convince the mainstream rugby public to buy in has got to be one of the toughest jobs going at NZR right now.

Several unions around the country are planning to only open a portion of their home stadiums to the public on matchday this season, not out of choice, but as a necessary cost saver.

For those unions, there’s simply no logic in flinging the gates open when chances are that only a few thousand will walk up for the match.

They’re also bound by long-standing licensing and commercial agreements, effectively forcing them to play home matches at these empty stadiums with little to no atmosphere.

It all just adds to the poor logical long-term planning long ago.

In terms of the provincial rugby landscape, there has been a dramatic shift since the classic old days, when in 1993 for example, the entire nation stopped to see Waikato beat that famous Auckland side to take the Ranfurly Shield.

That era and the ones before it provides much romanticism to the hardcore rugby tragic, but in the modern era, convincing players to take their chances in the NPC is a particularly tough sell for some coaches who’re looking to convince a few of the top talents to either stay or come back.

Take Fletcher Smith, for example. Getting the talented playmaker to agree to come back and give it another shot with Waikato after already heading offshore was an almighty task for Mooloos to pull off.

What about the curious case of Marty Banks? The deep south legend arrives in Southland having his best rugby days behind him. He’s done his dash at New Zealand’s top professional level, left these shores and played in overseas leagues, and now is looking to end it all on a high – though he’s apparently keen on a further Super Rugby stint.

The same can be said for so many of the star names floating around in the NPC, names which have returned to where it all started.

Were these men a few years younger, were they yet to have successful careers either in the black jersey or playing rugby offshore with the considerable revenue dollars which comes with that, their decision to play in the NPC in 2021 might not be so clear cut.

This is a business reality that is clear as day to see. What’s hard to see right now is the real return on investment for a competition like the NPC – outside of television ratings, that is.

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The indisputable problem with the NPC

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