By LINDSAY KNIGHT
The hottest of favourites for this year's first division title will be Canterbury, the reigning champions, the Ranfurly Shield holders and as the Crusaders, undefeated winners of this year's Super 12 title.
With a complete team of All Blacks, plus the possible luxury of having other All Blacks like Daryl Gibson, Ben Blair and Sam Broomhall in the reserves, there does not seem to be much hope for any of the other sides.
If Canterbury are to be beaten then it seems the only possible chance will come in the opening two rounds when there is likely to be a tricky process reintroducing all the All Blacks into the lineup.
Canterbury open the championship against Wellington in the capital tonight and their second match is also on the road, against Bay of Plenty.
As always and even allowing for their NPC win in 2000, Wellington are looming as one of the most erratic, unpredictable sides in the competition.
Their pre-season form has been dreadful and includes a loss to second division Hawkes Bay.
With only 10 teams in the first division this season Canterbury have only four home round robin matches to double as shield defences: Southland (Aug 31), Northland (Sept 13, a match which will coincide with the presentation 100 years ago of the shield), North Harbour (Sept 28) and Otago (Oct 12).
Canterbury's other three away games are Waikato (Sept 7), Auckland (Sept 20) and Taranaki (Oct 4).
The match against Otago will be the climax of the qualifying round robin, and presumably there will be a scramble for the playoff places that weekend and the securing for the semifinal and final the home advantage by finishing in the top two spots.
And, indeed, Canterbury's October 12 clash with Otago could well be the highlight of the provincial season.
For if there is one side capable of upsetting Canterbury's supremacy it is Otago, who this year will be coached by Greg Cooper and Wayne Graham who last year assisted the old master, Laurie Mains.
Otago have almost as many resources as Canterbury. In the forwards they themselves have All Blacks in abundance - Tom Willis, possibly Anton Oliver for the latter rounds at least, Carl Hayman, Carl Hoeft, Joe McDonnell, Simon Maling, Taine Randell, Sam Harding, Byron Kelleher and, presuming he is over his injury, Tony Brown.
They will also have some well performed and promising backups in Kelvin Middleton, Filipo Levi, Danny Lee and Ryan Nicholas. And it might be wondered how much extra motivation Randell will have this year in what might be his last season in New Zealand rugby.
It was a Canterbury-Otago final last year and it would be a brave tipster who would suggest anything different this year.
But no one can ever count Wellington, particularly if at long last their fabulous back three of Christian Cullen, Jonah Lomu and Tana Umaga start firing together. Wellington will also hope that the outstanding loose forward prospect Jerry Collins, too, is over his injury concerns.
Most of the forwards in the Hurricanes Super 12 franchise come from Taranaki and their efforts in making the NPC semifinals of 1998 and 2000 have been a reminder that even unions of this size can be competitive.
Taranaki have lost stalwart captain Andy Slater, but other inspiring forwards such as his prop brother, Gordon, new skipper Paul Tito and the lively hooker Andrew Hore remain. And coaching Taranaki again will be Colin Cooper who had so much success this year as forward coach of the Crusaders.
Southland probably figure with Bay of Plenty as the most likely sides to finish with the wooden spoon and thus have to face the top second division team in the promotion-relegation playoff.
Southland have regained the services of Paul Miller, but have lost to injury their captain and lock Brendon Timmins and the promising hooker Corey Flynn.
By LINDSAY KNIGHT