While it will still be some time before we know what the rugby calendar will look like in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, there have been suggestions aplenty regarding what we could expect from the compacted season.
One such suggestion would see New Zealand’s provincial competition again take pride of place in the rugby year.
The Mitre 10 Cup has fallen in prominence over the last decade, typically competing for the spotlight with Test rugby due to the congested calendar.
In 2019, six rounds of action were completed before the Rugby World Cup took over the airwaves but there were also various international warm-ups taking place throughout those first weeks.
2018 was a similar story, with the Rugby Championship and the Mitre 10 Cup kicking off on the same weekend.
While this naturally has a direct impact on the viewership of the Mitre 10 Cup, the arguably bigger issue is that All Blacks are almost entirely absent from New Zealand’s oldest nationwide rugby competition.
It was a similar situation the year prior with just a handful of players who were lacking in game time allowed to turn out for their provincial sides.
You have to look back to 2006 for the last time that All Blacks played any sort of meaningful role in what was then called the Air New Zealand Cup.
In that year, the likes of Mils Muliaina, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Byron Kelleher and Keith Robinson faced up against Tana Umaga, Conrad Smith and Piri Weepu in the competition’s final.
This was only possible as the Super Rugby season was considerably shorter (16 weeks instead of 21), allowing the slightly more compact Tri-Nations (10 weeks instead of 14) to finish up with six rounds of action still go to in the Air New Zealand Cup.
It’s gotten to the point where many All Blacks’ provincial teams are token alliances used almost exclusively for marketing.
It was trumpeted as a fairly big deal when Kieran Read changed provinces from Canterbury to his native Counties Manukau back in 2017 but the All Blacks captain never donned Counties colours for anything other than promotional purposes.
That wouldn’t have been the case if the provincial season wasn’t now simply treated as a development competition.
Super Rugby could still take place in some form this year but at best we’re likely to see a New Zealand-only competition.
The alternative is to kick off the Mitre 10 Cup a little earlier in the year, whenever professional sports becomes viable once more, and welcome New Zealand’s top talent back into the provincial fold.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 13, 2020
Yes, it’s only 30-odd extra players being added to a competition which sees upwards of 400 players already taking part, but it’s 30-odd of the best players – men who could not only lift their sides’ performances but also help mentor the many rookies in the early stages of their careers.
The fact that the All Blacks are relatively evenly distributed amongst the provinces compared to 20 years ago would also mean that the likes of Canterbury, Auckland and Wellington wouldn’t simply be injected with all the talent.
Last year, Taranaki finished 5th in the Championship division – effectively ranking them as the 12th strongest province in New Zealand.
It would take a brave man to suggest that Taranaki wouldn’t challenge for the overall title if they had all their All Blacks on deck, however.
Simply adding the three Barrett brothers, Beauden, Scott and Jordie, to a side already well supported by Super Rugby players, would help take the 2014 champions’ game to another level.
In fact, Scott and Jordie have never actually had the opportunity to don the amber and black hoops of the Taranaki provincial side, originally earning their stripes for Canterbury.
The other team that might significantly benefit from having all their All Blacks fit and available for selection is Waikato, who weren’t far off making the finals in last year’s Premiership.
While their pack may not get too much propping up (although a fit Luke Jacobson would be a huge boon), their backline would suddenly be teeming with X-factor in the form of Damian McKenzie, Anton Lienert-Brown and Sevu Reece.
It’s also worth considering there are a huge number of former NZ players who now ply their trade in Japan, where the Top League season has been cancelled for the rest of the year. It may be a pipe dream, but is there a chance that some of these players could return for a one-off season in New Zealand? Could Kieran Read run out for the Counties Manukau Steelers after all?
Back in the real world, the extra time allotted to the Mitre 10 Cup could also allow for a full round-robin instead of the contracted season and Premiership/Championship split that fans have had to put up with for the last few years.
The whole season could be capped off with the much-fabled North Island v South Island match, selecting players based on their performances from throughout the Mitre 10 Cup.
Now may not be the time to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but it is a great opportunity for New Zealand Rugby to try something different. The season has been so comprehensively upturned that the status quo is no longer possible and a one-off refresh would certainly not be a bad thing.
The provinces that would benefit from having their All Blacks available:
Northland – Jack Goodhue
Auckland – Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Rieko Ioane
Counties Manukau – Nepo Laulala
Waikato – Luke Jacobson, Anton Lienert-Brown, Sevu Reece
Bay of Plenty – Sam Cane
Taranaki – Angus Ta’avao, Scott Barrett, Beauden Barrett, Jordie Barrett
Hawke’s Bay – Brodie Retallick (in Japan), Brad Weber
Manawatu – Aaron Smith
Wellington – Dane Coles, Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara
Tasman – Atu Moli, Shannon Frizell
Canterbury – Codie Taylor, Joe Moody, Sam Whitelock (in Japan), Richie Mo’unga, George Bridge
Otago – Liam Coltman
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