OPINION: This year's national provincial championship is the poor cousin in the rugby calendar, no question about it, writes Nathan Burdon in this week's Straight Up.
Squeezed between an extended Super rugby competition and the Rugby World Cup, it's hard to shake the feeling that it's much more than an after-thought.
That is hard to take for those of us who consider the NPC to be this county's most important competition, not just in terms of developing players but in terms of evoking any real passion.
Super rugby and the All Blacks may be the golden geese that pull in the money to keep the game going in this country, but without a robust NPC, New Zealand would quickly become an also-ran in international rugby.
This year's competition is not a level playing field.
With midweek games testing the depth of teams, the bigger unions start with a clear advantage.
You can argue that the likes of Canterbury are also taxed in providing a lot of players to the All Blacks, but that is something the red-and-blacks are well used to.
Having the Stags open their campaign against last year's beaten finalists, before trekking to Napier to play Hawke's Bay and then asking them to front up for a credible Ranfurly Shield challenge against the Cantabs sounds criminal.
There are no excuses, however.
Southland have had months to prepare for this eventuality and must make the best of it.
There is a chance the Stags will end the weekend without a win from their first three games, staring down the barrel of automatic demotion to the championship at the end of the season.
In the first year of the new two-tier format, there is little difference between the two divisions.
We have already seen Southland lose to championship Hawke's Bay and Otago – last year's wooden-spoon team – beating premiership side Auckland.
But history suggests that during the next few years a gap must develop.
The top teams get to play each other more often. It's more attractive to the players and sponsors.
Once that gap starts to become noticeable, it will become increasingly difficult to make the jump from one level to the next.
If the Stags do find themselves slipping into the championship, they cannot afford to stay there for too long or it will become permanent.
Of course, that depends on the New Zealand Rugby Union sticking with this format.
If it sticks to the script, it will change things again in a couple of years.
» Nathan Burdon has been the Southland Times sports editor since 2003 and has won numerous journalism awards, including provincial sports writer of the year.
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