Usual suspects expected to front up in the NPC
Everybody loves an underdog.
Unfortunately, city-based dominance dictates NPC favouritism sits comfortably with the usual suspects. Superior resource and player depth prove problematic barriers for smaller unions to overcome.
Between them Canterbury, Wellington and Auckland contested the last two provincial finals and when the national competition starts this week they will be favoured to do so again.
For those who enjoy the little guy prospering, there is hope. Tasman and Counties Manukau possess the potential to upset established contenders and another predictable conclusion.
Setting out to clinch a seventh successive crown, Canterbury are again the target.
Without Colin Slade, recalled to the All Blacks to cover Dan Carter last week, Andy Ellis and George Whitelock, there may be a chance to end the champion's run, though.
For now at least, their unified, cohesive culture and squad containing a core of Super Rugby leaders mean the red-and-blacks remain a formidable outfit. It would be a major surprise not to see them in the finals.
Perennial bridesmaids Wellington, whose lust for success enters its 14th year, were well placed before injuries robbed them of tighthead prop Jeff Toomaga Allen and dynamic openside Ardie Savea, and Jeremy Thrush was recalled to the All Blacks.
They were also dealt another massive blow on Friday with a suspected season-ending hamstring tear to former British & Irish Lions utility Riki Flutey exposing depth at first five-eighth. Fellow veteran Fa'atonu Fili is now favoured for the 10 role but half of Wellington's contracted players are said to be injured.
That makes Chris Boyd's desire to finish his reign and progress to the Hurricanes with the union's first title since Dave Rennie's men in 2000 incredibly difficult.
Auckland will fancy their chances. Gareth Anscombe, before chasing a World Cup spot with Wales, is keen to sign off his New Zealand career in style.
Sevens star Ben Lam, skilful fullback Lolagi Visinia and midfielder Francis Saili, who returns to his home union after missing national selection, form a dangerous backline.
With Paul Feeney stepping up from assistant coach to take over from Wayne Pivac, the onus falls on Nick White and former All Blacks No 8 Xavier Rush to get the most from a forward pack that must cover Patrick Tuipulotu and Steven Luatua, two influential figures last season.
Top contenders aside, Premiership underdog status undoubtedly rests with Tasman and Counties. These two teams have the best chance of constructing a fairytale run.
Counties, under Tana Umaga, proved they belonged with the big boys last year, capping off a memorable season with a semifinal appearance and, more importantly, locking away the Ranfurly Shield.
Co-captains Tim Nanai-Williams and Augustine Pulu, along with Bundee Aki before he departs to Ireland, need to play leading roles if they are to retain the log o' wood, with Canterbury scheduled for the third challenge.
Tasman should also hold aspirations to challenge. Marty Banks, Tom Marshall, Kieron Fonotia and James Lowe will thrive on the back of Super Rugby experience, making their expansive style more difficult to contain.
Combine that with superb loose-forwards - Liam Squire, Jordan Taufua, Shane Christie and Tevita Koloamatangi - and if the Makos can gain parity at the set-piece they will be a genuine force following promotion.
"You can't go off the boil because you've got a game three or four days later.
"If we can build that confidence through the year there's no reason we can't push for those playoff spots," Banks said.
"Canterbury, Wellington and Auckland are the dominant teams but there will be a lot of competition for that third and fourth spot."
Further up the country, Taranaki and Waikato seek drastic improvements. First-five Damian McKenzie, a future star, will captivate Mooloo supporters and 153-kilogram lock Cameron Skelton - younger brother of Waratahs cult hero Will - is a notable inclusion.
The championship appears wide open. After being relegated, Bay of Plenty have a point to prove, as does All Blacks hooking prospect Nathan Harris, while Hawke's Bay, Otago and Southland, who recruited Highlanders playmaker Lima Sopoaga, all boast legitimate credentials.
Some may scoff at the suggestion, but expect North Harbour, with Hayden Triggs, James Parsons, Bryn Hall, Tevita Li, Matt McGahan and Robbie Robinson, to be the big movers from the bottom half of the table under new coach Steve Jackson.
Manawatu and Northland are always worth watching but traditionally battle for consistency throughout the year.
Sunday Star Times