With the NPC returning this weekend, here's all you need to know about this year's competition.
New year, new competition format.
Toward the back end of the 2021 NPC season, the decision was made to scrap promotion/relegation due to some teams being more impacted by Covid-19 than others.
That didn't go down well with many, but particularly Taranaki coach Neil Barnes who questioned if it was fair for Championship division teams to not have the chance to go up.
It was a fair point, given Taranaki went 8-0 in the regular season, with four of those wins coming against Premiership opponents. Taranaki finished their season unbeaten with the Championship title in their grasp.
There will be no such dramas this season, with a complete revamp of the competition seeing the Premiership-Championship structure abolished.
In its place, an odd-and-evens divisional structure has been developed. Based upon the standings from last season, the 14 teams will be divided in two based on whether they finished in an odd or even number on the table. The teams that made up last year's Premiership make up the 1-7 seeds, with the Championship teams in the 8-14 spots.
The round-robin competition runs over a 10-week span, with every team playing four divisional cross-over matches. It's a similar approach to recent years, but the change in division format means these cross-over matches won't necessarily be a case of the best teams meeting the worst teams.
This year's divisions
Odds: Waikato (2021 Premiership winners), Hawke's Bay, Bay of Plenty, Wellington, Otago, Southland, Counties Manukau.
Evens: Tasman, Canterbury, Auckland, Taranaki (2021 Championship winners), Manawatū, North Harbour, Northland.
The finals will include the top four teams in each division, with quarterfinals being played between division rivals (1v4; 2v3), before cross-over matches in the semifinals.
If two teams in the same division are tied on points at the end of the round robin, the team that won the regular-season fixture between the two will get the higher position on the ladder. If the two teams did not meet during the season, the team with the higher points differential gets the higher position.
It gets a bit more complicated if it's a three-way tie. In that scenario, if all tied teams played each other, the team who took the most competition points in those fixtures gets the higher seed. If the tied sides haven't played each other, it goes back to points differential.
If a tie can't be broken through the above methods, the team that scored the most points in the round robin will have the higher position. Failing that, a coin toss will come in to play.
Who are the main contenders?
In a development that will surprise absolutely no one, Canterbury are going to be good again. There is a whole lot to like in this squad, not just in their established names, but there are players like Crusaders duo Corey Kellow and Dominic Gardiner who have earned their first full-time contracts with the provincial team for this season. Canterbury are going to be good in every aspect of the game and, on paper, will be very hard to beat.
D-Mac is back. The dynamic Damian McKenzie will make his return in Waikato's tri-colours, and with the side coming off a competition-winning campaign you can expect them to look capable of backing that up. While some teams have been hit by All Blacks selections, Waikato have had the opposite happen as Luke Jacobson will be available to join an already strong pack. Like Canterbury, Waikato will be strong in all areas, and with the speed in their backline they will be able to attack from anywhere.
The Mako are strong again in 2022, though they have been hit a bit more through All Blacks selections than in recent years. In the past, they have been able to rely on Finlay Christie at halfback and the attacking presence of Leicester Fainga'anuku, but they both join Sevu Reece, Shannon Frizell, David Havili, Will Jordan and Tyrel Lomax on All Blacks duty for the Rugby Championship. That said, they have plenty of talent and experience to give the competition a shake; the locking duo of Pari Pari Parkinson and Quinten Strange is one of the strongest in the competition, while the likes of Mitch Hunt, Alex Nankivell and Andrew Makalio will make their presence felt.
After missing plenty of time in 2021 due to Covid-19, Auckland will be back with a vengeance this season. This is a side that is going to put up points, with the likes of Salesi Rayasi, AJ Lam and Zarn Sullivan headlining a solid backline contingent behind a strong and established pack.
Yes, I am once again falling into the trap of assuming Wellington are going to be good based on their roster. It's hard not to this season. The Lions don't have a lot of All Blacks, but they have a lot of fringe stars or former All Blacks on the roster; TJ Perenara, Asafo Aumua, Julian Savea among them. They don't have a lot of established talent in the pack which could be an issue, hence them landing in the wildcards, but the depth in the backline makes them dangerous for any team.
If you're not from Hawke's Bay and/or haven't been following the team for the past few years, there will be many unfamiliar names in this squad, but they're a unit who are very familiar with one another. Not only have they maintained their core from a 7-1 campaign last year, a lot of the team (10, if we're being specific) have been together through the Super Rugby season with Moana Pasifika, and they are boosted by the services of halfback Brad Weber. Watch this space, because they're going to upset some of the bigger teams in this competition.
It's also worth noting they are the current Ranfurly Shield holders. Their first defence of the NPC season comes in round two against Counties Manukau.
The Bulls have named a settled squad for this season and although they have the Barrett trio, Stephen Perofeta and Tupou Vaa'i away with the All Blacks, and Josh Lord out with injury, they have depth in most positions. Backline general Jayson Potroz will again be an important part of this team's success, while their pack will be formidable and provide the platform for their speedsters out wide. A wildcard in the finest sense of the term – they probably shouldn't contend with some of the bigger teams, but they will.
Round one fixtures
Friday August 5
Manawatū v Canterbury. Palmerston North, 7.05pm.
Saturday August 6
Counties Manukau v Otago. Pukekohe, 2.05pm.
Waikato v Hawke's Bay. Hamilton, 4.35pm.
Auckland v North Harbour. Auckland, 7.05pm.
Sunday August 7
Taranaki v Northland. New Plymouth, 2.05pm.
Tasman v Southland. Nelson, 2.05pm.
Wellington v Bay of Plenty. Wellington, 4.35pm.