Will revamped NPC really fly with fans?

By Chris Barclay

Now they have rebuilt it, will they come?

That is the interesting question posed by the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) revamp of the National Provincial Championship (NPC).

From a fan's perspective will the Air New Zealand Cup be played out on a field of dreams, or in front of sparse crowds as the rugby public's attention span wanes at the end of a season dominated by the Super 14 and the All Blacks' burgeoning test calendar?

For the first time since 1992, when playoffs were introduced to ensure the NPC was no longer awarded on a "first past the post" basis, the country's domestic diamond has been recut after a wide-ranging competitions review was instigated amid the 2003 Rugby World Cup fallout.

Its brief was to ensure "the best possible platform for sustaining a winning All Blacks' team" and maintain rugby "as a game accessible and attractive to all New Zealanders".

The resulting gem, if it can be called that, is a potentially perplexing competition initially bereft of All Blacks but replete with a $2 million salary cap, repechage pools, the resurrection of Counties-Manukau, Manawatu, Hawke's Bay and the formation of the Tasman Makos -- the fourth small fish in a big pond comprising 14 provinces.

Those provinces have been split into two pools. Each team plays the others in the pool once, with one bye weekend.

The top three teams from each pool then progress to a Top Six group where they play teams they have not already played, and add to their points tally.

Eight remaining teams start with a clean slate in two repechage pools where three games determine which pair join the Top Six in knockout quarterfinals.

The climax is the top two sides meeting in the final, on October 21.

The format will take some time to absorb and for all the NZRU's desire to create an equitable competition through the enforced spread of talent through the imposition of a salary cap there are inbuilt flaws -- at least in the short-term.

First round mismatches are unavoidable as the promoted unions acclimatise to life in the big league without the resources and player depth built up -- historically at their expense -- by the likes of Canterbury, Auckland, Waikato and Wellington.

To stay under the cap Auckland transferred 10 players to rival unions and Canterbury eight.

Canterbury let Chris Jack go to Tasman, though the All Blacks' lock was the only established star on the move and is unlikely to turn out often for a new franchise which helpfully keeps him in the Crusaders catchment area.

Counties stalwart Errol Brain, the Steelers assistant coach and a cornerstone of the province's glory days in the mid 1990s, accepts the competition newcomers are not exactly stepping on to a horizontal paddock from July 28, but says it's better than languishing in the old second division.

"It's been fantastic for Counties. In the past when you've tried to get up divisions you've had to win competitions and that didn't happen for us."

Consequently talented youngsters were easy pickings for the richer unions.

"We're so close to metro areas -- Auckland, Harbour, Waikato so any talented players could go there and play," he said.

Crusaders centre Casey Laulala and Waikato's All Black wing Sitiveni Sivivatu were prime examples of players lost to Counties.

"Counties have had fantastic young rugby players coming through and the union wasn't able to keep them.

"Casey and Sivi -- there was no reason for them to stay. They wanted to make rugby their full-time job. Counties couldn't provide that for them.

"From a player's point of view they couldn't see a pathway where they can make it to the top level from playing in a smaller union.

"With ourselves, Tasman, Hawke's Bay and Manawatu being up in that premier division, now players have a pathway to the top."

While Brain is enthusiastic about the challenge ahead, he accepts hidings are inevitable.

"I'd like to say no but I'm realist too.

"I'm certainly now going to say we're going to go out there and beat these big unions -- I'd be talking through a hole in my arse mate.

"But within a period of two-three years we'd like to be competitive."

The absence of All Blacks in the early stages may be a turn off for fans, but from Brain's perspective it gives the next generation a chance to push for a Super 14 contract.

"There is a realistic chance they can make it into the Super 14 teams because the guys they are playing against will be the ones they are competing with.

"The All Blacks don't look like playing all of the Super 14 next year either."

And from a coaching viewpoint Brain took little solace from All Blacks sidestepping the Cup's early rounds.

"I watched Canterbury play Wairarapa Bush (in a Ranfurly Shield game) and there was a lot of players I didn't know from Canterbury.

"They're not the name players but many there's some fabulous footballers there."

That may be so, but will punters be prepared to judge for themselves by getting to the ground? Could the Cup go the way of club rugby where spectator numbers have dwindled?

"My initial thoughts would be no but time will tell," Brain said.

"I still think there's a huge loyalty factor involved with the fans because it (a provincial competition) has been with us forever and a day.

"Kiwis will also want to watch good rugby. It's our responsibility as coaches and players to make sure the brand of rugby is attractive.

"It's hard to get a feel for where the competition's going to be," he admits.

"Is it going to lower the standard or are all these guys that haven't been given a lot of exposure before (going to) get some and really respond to it?"

Seventy games over 13 weeks should at least answer that.

- NZPA

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