The future of the NPC is under-23: provincial rugby’s jewel must redefine itself

Paul Cully is a Stuff sports writer

OPINION: The good old days of provincial rugby aren’t coming back – two decades of Super Rugby has taken care of that.

The famous but faded competition began on Friday night with a now-familiar lack of fanfare and identity crisis: what is it for these days?

It’s a big question, and if you asked the 14 provincial unions you’d probably get a number of different answers.

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We know what New Zealand Rugby wants the provincial unions to be: it has spent the past few years nudging them into accepting that their priority is community rugby, clubs and participation: winning the NPC is secondary in that vision.

Some unions are more on board with that than others.

But, ignoring hard questions about the future of the NPC isn’t an option. It’s been in the too-hard basket for too long, and the NPC do with some clarity.

One option would be to try to properly revive the competition by telling the Australians to go their own way with Super Rugby, closing off the borders (metaphorically), rewinding the clock back decades and making the NPC the country’s primary rugby competition.

Waikato celebrate after winning the NPC Premiership final against Tasman last year.

Michael Bradley / Getty Images

Waikato celebrate after winning the NPC Premiership final against Tasman last year.

That would produce a short-term, nostalgia-laden sugar rush that would be immensely enjoyable.

Yet, the harsh realities dictate that only significant economies such as France or England can sustain domestic-only competitions – and even the English just about survived Covid-19.

The other is option would be to give the NPC renewed purpose by making it a pure development vehicle – under-23s for example, with complemented by three or four ‘overage’ players.

Make it a shorter, sharper window for the best young players in the country to compete against each other.

But, you say, what about the late bloomers? The blokes who learn their trade at NPC level for a number of years before coming through into Super Rugby at 25 or 26 ?.

Like it or not, those days are done. Super Rugby recruitment doesn’t wait for the NPC any more.

How many Super contracts are up for grabs at these stage of year? Two or three at each Super club? It’s minimal.

In 2022, the talent identification is done before players even play NPC. Provincial rugby acts as a confirmation of their abilities that were spotted years before, not as an identification tool in itself.

Reshaping the NPC wouldn’t be about degrading the provincial unions. Their funding from NZ Rugby has been locked in at $ 40ma year for the coming years, on top of the immediate windfall from the Silver Lake deal.

But where is that money best spent? On NPC wage bills? Or reinforcing community rugby, women’s rugby, clubhouses and the relationships with schools?

This debate is purely about finding where the NPC fits in the modern-day model. At the moment, rugby asks an awful lot of time-poor punters.

From February to June, they have to put on their Chiefs / Crusaders / Blues / Highlanders / Hurricanes scarves, then All Blacks and club rugby colors, and then provincial garb from August onwards.

It’s hard to think of a fan base, in any sport anywhere in the world, that is asked to spread their engagement – and dollars – over such a range of platforms for effectively 11 months a year.

Does anyone think this is working?

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