NPC makeover - everyone's a winner

Four second division provinces were popping champagne corks last night after the New Zealand Rugby Union confirmed that 14 teams would be admitted to the premier competition which replaces the NPC next year.

The NZRU announced that all 14 applicants to join the new professional league were accepted.

The league will comprise the 10 existing first division teams plus second division sides Counties Manukau, Hawkes Bay, Manawatu and a combined team from Nelson Bays-Marlborough.

A division one amateur competition of 12 teams comprising the remaining second division and third division sides was also confirmed.

The announcement was an about-face from the NZRU after it had stated in November 2003 that a premier competition involving up to 12 teams would be established.

The outcome yesterday followed mounting speculation this week that the NZRU would abandon its firm stance and allow all the applicants to participate in the new competition - the biggest make-over of the New Zealand domestic rugby scene since the NPC was introduced in 1976.

The premier competition will be split into two pools of seven, with a two-round competition followed by a finals round, including quarter-finals, semifinals and final.

In the second round, however, based on rankings from round one, teams will play in a top-six pool and a bottom-eight repechage, with the top two teams from the bottom eight joining the other six in the quarter-finals.

The points for the top six from rounds one and two will be combined. The bottom eight teams will start afresh.

NZRU chairman Jock Hobbs said a salary cap for the premier competition would be introduced, but details were still to be finalised.

It could prove to be a contentious issue with the NZRU as it enters negotiations with the New Zealand Rugby Union Players' Association later this year to hammer out salary bands. The new division one competition will comprise Buller, East Coast, Horowhenua-Kapiti, King Country, Mid-Canterbury, North Otago, Poverty Bay, South Canterbury, Thames Valley, Wairarapa-Bush, Wanganui, and West Coast.

These teams will play in a two-pool competition, with the top six and bottom six vying to play in separate semifinal and final matches.

The premier competition will start in the last weekend of July and division one three weeks later.

Both run until October 21, with a total of 70 and 54 games respectively.

The All Blacks will be available for the premier competition after the Tri-Nations, while the Ranfurly Shield will be contested in only the first and second rounds of both competitions.

Hobbs denied the NZRU had back-pedalled from its review committee's recommendations.

"There will be those who assert that the [NZRU] board has caved into political pressure and was not tough enough to make the hard calls.

"On behalf of the board I emphatically reject such assertions," he said.

"The board and management have worked too hard for too long on this project to cave in at the finish."

Hobbs said the board, which made its decision last Tuesday after meeting for two days, was unanimous that the new structure was in the best interests of New Zealand rugby.

He also rejected suggestions that potential legal action from any provinces rejected from a 12-team competition persuaded them to include all 14 applicants. "The board concluded that all the applicants had earned, through a comprehensive and robust process, the opportunity and the right to participate in their chosen competition." Hobbs said the Super 14 and Tri-Nations, plus additional All Black fixtures, had a bearing on the final outcome.

He said every application met the prerequisite criteria, which included finances, stadiums, administration and playing numbers.

But he also warned that the board reserved the right to revoke a province's place in the premier competition if it did not meet the commitments made in the application.

Counties Manukau chief executive Nick Sheppard said the decision had certainly given his union a lifeline because it had been struggling since it slipped out of the first division.

"The implications in being in the premier division are huge," he said.

"It's going to give our region a flagship . . . so people know who we are and what we stand for."

Sheppard said making the premier competition was worth millions for Counties Manukau.

"The format the board have come up with is fantastic.

"I think it will capture the rugby public's imagination from the start. I think it's to be applauded and we're just pleased to be part of it."

How it will work

* 14-team premier competition.

* Split into two pools of seven.

* Two-round competition followed by a finals round, including quarter-finals, semifinals and final.

* Based on rankings from round one, teams will play in a top-six pool and a bottom-eight repechage, with two teams from the bottom eight joining the top six in the quarter-finals.

* Salary cap details to be finalised.


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