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Long: Last rites for National Provincial comp?

DAVID LONG
Last updated 05:00 10/08/2014
Scott Robertson
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BEAR HUG: Canterbury coach Scott Robertson celebrates after winning the NPC at Westpac Stadium in Wellington.

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OPINION: According to David Higgins, one of the bosses of Duco Events, it was entirely coincidental that the announcement of the date of next year's Auckland Nines, last Tuesday, happened at the same time as the NPC launch.

In fact, Higgins didn't even know the NZRU were having their shindig in another part of Auckland until I told him about it.

But therein lies one of the biggest issues rugby bosses face right now, how to get people interested or even taking notice of provincial rugby again.

After just one year in existence, the Auckland Nines has established itself as one of the biggest sporting events in the New Zealand calendar; the NPC, however, is a competition that seems to be in terminal decline, at least in its present guise.

Don't get me wrong, I'll still watch most of the games each week, but I fear that I'm in the minority.

The NZRU is aware that it's the All Blacks who are the big money spinners for them, they're the ones that prop up the rest of rugby in this country.

But so much emphasis and focus has been put towards this brand that it's damaging Super Rugby and is killing it at the provincial level.

As soon as the All Blacks stopped playing for their provinces, the last rites for the NPC were being read. Only diehards and rugby tragics like myself would still want to avidly turn up to watch games regularly.

It's become an almost impossible sell to get the general public along to watch rugby games played between players most people have never heard of, especially when games are scheduled to fit around what Sky TV want, rather than what works best to attract people to the games.

With the crowds to Hurricanes games this year at the Cake Tin, I dread to think what they'll be like for the Lions this season.

The NZRU have tried several times to add some life into the competition with complex schedules that many people don't understand. We now have a two division competition, but teams also play against sides from the other division.

On one hand we see teams desperate to avoid relegation or achieve promotion and then on the other we're told it doesn't matter if unions are in the Premiership or Championship. So which is it?

I can't help but think that the old system of three divisions was a whole lot simpler and more exciting. If East Coast were able to get promoted to division one then good on them, if North Harbour were awful then they should be down at the bottom tier along with the likes of West Coast and Buller.

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The constant tinkering created confusion and even though it's been stable for the last few years, plenty of people couldn't tell you which division Otago or Taranaki are in.

But through all of this mess there has been one shining light in New Zealand Provincial rugby that has never dimmed and that's the Ranfurly Shield.

The NZRU have toyed with the idea of tinkering with the format of it, so teams have to take it on the road with them. Thankfully, though, all of those sorts of ideas fell short of getting signed off.

There is something special about the Log o' Wood, it encompasses what New Zealand is about and reminds us of the heritage of this country. Super Rugby is about being flash and shinny, the All Blacks jet off to play meaningless games in Tokyo and Chicago to make money, but the Shield stays the same.

Just look at what it did for Otago, Hawke's Bay and Counties Manukau last year, it revitalised those communities and made people feel proud of where they come from. I doubt whether winning the NPC Premiership itself comes anywhere near achieving that.

So that's what I'll be looking forward to over the next few month, seeing if the Shield remains in Pukekohe or if another province will be touched by its magic, because when it comes down to it, the Log o' Wood is what provincial rugby is all about.

- Sunday News

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