Start of the NPC may help ease Crusaders' pain

LIAM NAPIER
Last updated 05:00 06/08/2014
CHIT CHAT: Hawke’s Bay’s Brendon O’Connor and former All Black Bryan Williams share a word during yesterday’s BBQ challenge in Auckland to mark the NPC rugby launch.
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CHIT CHAT: Hawke’s Bay’s Brendon O’Connor and former All Black Bryan Williams share a word during yesterday’s BBQ challenge in Auckland to mark the NPC rugby launch.

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The timing could not have been better.

As the Super Rugby crown took centre stage at a downtown Sydney parade yesterday, New Zealand rugby quickly turned its attention to the National Provincial Championship, which starts next week.

After the Crusaders' heartbreaking defeat to the Waratahs, those in red and black country can at least take solace in the fact they've reigned supreme for the past six seasons in this competition.

A swift change of focus might help ease their suffering.

With provincial pride on the line, such a period of dominance is far too long for some to stomach though.

In many ways this year is a case of deja vu.

New season, same challenge. Everyone is out to knock over Canterbury; to end what's become the predictable status quo.

''It's a bit boring isn't it? Over the last couple of years we've been there or there about. Canterbury has tipped us up at the business end of the season,'' Auckland captain Tom McCartney said with a statement that resonates across the country, particularly in Wellington after last year's final consigned them to bridesmaids once again.

McCartney, who joins Pat Lam at Irish club Connacht at the end of the season, has been on the receiving end, too.

Losing last year's semi and the 2012 final in Christchurch aren't memories easily shelved.

''Everyone is a little bit frustrated by that,'' he said.

''We've got a feeling this year we need to go one step further and finish the job off. They've had a great group of guys the last six or seven years and have been dominant.''

Which begs the question, can the Cantabs continue their remarkable success?

''Yeah I think so,'' Canterbury No 8 Nasi Manu predicted. ''We've got a well balanced squad. It's not going to be easy but we can do it.''

Colin Slade's potential All Blacks' recall to cover Dan Carter's month-long absence might help open the door, as will the departures of captain George Whitelock and influential halfback Andy Ellis to Japan.

While he lacks attacking spark, Tyler Bleyendaal will back his tactical boot to fill the breach at first five-eighth but, otherwise, Scott Robertson's squad remains largely unchanged.

Next week, Auckland gets first crack at Canterbury in the opening round but being targeted is nothing new for any champion team.

''We've created a special environment. Scott Robertson did well to carry that on last year. Our team culture is the reason why we do so well,'' Manu said.

''Every game every province gets up for us. It's been like that for a few years now. It's going to be another tough season.

''We always have a different theme every year which really freshens things up. When we're all back together we go on a camp and come up with our values and how we're going to go about the campaign.''

Outside of the usual suspects, interest will centre on Counties Manukau's ability to retain the Ranfurly Shield - and whether Tasman can maintain their Premiership status after gaining promotion.

''Everyone calls Tasman Canterbury's little brother but hopefully we're stepping out of that light,'' Tasman first-five Marty Banks said.

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''The competition is at that level where anyone can roll anyone, but it would be good to see someone knock them [Canterbury] off.''

First round draw:

Thursday, August 14: Taranaki v Counties Manukau in New Plymouth (7.35pm)

Friday: Southland v Bay of Plenty in Invercargill (7.35pm)

Saturday: Otago v North Harbour in Dunedin (2.35pm)

Canterbury v Auckland in Addington (4.35pm)

Wellington v Waikato in Wellington (6.35pm)

Sunday: Tasman v Hawke's Bay in Blenheim (2.35pm)

Northland v Manawatu in Whangarei (4.35pm) 

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