The Hawke's Bay Magpies have avoided having Ranfurly Shield defences against the big-three metropolitan unions; Canterbury, Auckland and Wellington, in the Bunnings NPC draw announced by New Zealand Rugby Union on Tuesday.
After opening the shield campaign with a non-NPC defence against Heartland champion union North Otago in Napier on June 30, Hawke's Bay are scheduled for five defences during their 10-match NPC programme, with home matches automatically for the Shield and booked in for McLean Park.
The Magpies open the NPC with a match against Taranaki in New Plymouth, the first of the away games, which include the three metropolitan majors.
The toughest challenges are expected to come from first-up NPC Shield match hopefuls Otago and, if the Shield is retained, Waikato a fortnight later before two-time NPC Premiership champions Tasman arrive at the end of the round-robin.
It was against Otago at Dunedin that the Magpies won the shield with a 28-9 win last October, and Waikato just heads the Magpies as the third-most successful union in shield history.
Tasman, despite being the national champions, were founded by a merger of Nelson Bays and Marlborough in 2006. They have never held the Shield, although Marlborough are famed for their David versus Goliath Shield win over Canterbury in 1973.
The Magpies could also face a tough turnaround mid-campaign with just five days between a non-Shield Sunday match against Manawatū in Palmerston North and the only night match, a scheduled Shield defence against North Harbour.
All but three of the 10 matches are 2.05pm afternoon matches, but the Otago and Tasman matches are set for 4.35pm starts.
HBRU chief executive Jay Campbell said the coaches were happy with the draw, and after winning the Championship level of the NPC last season to gain promotion to the Premiership top 7, are determined to both retain the Ranfurly Shield and win the NPC top grade for the first time.
The NPC was first held in 1976 and, while having won several lower-division titles, Hawke's Bay have never reached an NPC first division final.
The Hawke's Bay Magpies Bunnings NPC draw for 2021
August 7 (Saturday, 2.05pm), v Taranaki, at New Plymouth; August 14 (Saturday, 4.35pm), v Otago (Ranfurly Shield), at Napier; August 21 (Saturday, 2.05pm), v Canterbury, at Christchurch; August 28 (Saturday, 2.05pm), v Waikato (Ranfurly Shield), at Napier; September 5 (Sunday 2.05pm), v Manawatu, at Palmerston North; September 10 (Friday, 7.05pm), v North Harbour (Ranfurly Shield), at Napier; September 19 (Sunday, 2.05pm), v Bay of Plenty (Ranfurly Shield), at Napier; September 26 (Sunday, 2.05pm) v Wellington, at Wellington; October 3 (Sunday, 2.05pm), v Auckland, at Auckland; October 10 (Saturday, 4.35pm), v Tasman (Ranfurly Shield), at Napier.