NPC preview: How the 14 teams stack up

Waikato wing Iliesa Ratuva Tavuyara.
JEREMY WARD

Waikato wing Iliesa Ratuva Tavuyara.

The 2016 national provincial championship season will kick-off on Thursday night. Our Stuff.co.nz rugby writers take a look at the 14 teams who make up the premiership division. 

TARANAKI

Key player: Marty McKenzie. A largely inexperienced backline means he has to lead from first five-eighth.

Watch out for: Wing Manasa Mataele, 19, has many making comparisons between himself and All Black Waisake Naholo.

The lowdown: Taranaki will be expected to struggle without the likes of James Marshall, Jamison Gibson-Park, Kurt Baker and the continued uncertainty over Charlie Ngatai.

However, veteran coach Colin Cooper has a stable of loose forward talent and a tight five that will hold its own.

The key to their top-four chances will rest on how the backline operates, especially if injuries bite.

Season could take different path if they win the Ranfurly Shield. 

WAIKATO

Key player: Damian McKenzie. The 21-year-old's surprise omission from the All Blacks' rugby championship squad is Waikato's gain after his outstanding season with the Chiefs.

Watch out for: Iliesa Ratuva Tavuyara. The 26-year-old Fijian winger's explosive form in club rugby caught the eye of selectors, and he's justified his inclusion with four tries in three pre-season defences of the Ranfurly Shield.

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The lowdown: The backline looks exciting with the likes of McKenzie, Anton-Leinert Brown, Shaun Stevenson and Willis Halaholo. With the Log o' Wood to defend, Waikato should start fresh and competitive, and anything less than a semi-final spot will be deemed a failure.

TASMAN

Key player: James Lowe. The big Chiefs winger missed last year's entire competition through injury so will significantly enhance the team's attacking potential out wide.

Watch out for: If given the chance, it will be intriguing to see if fullback Jesse Pitman can transfer his electrifying club form into the NPC arena.

The lowdown: Despite the departures of stalwarts Joe Wheeler, Quentin MacDonald, Robbie Malneek and Jimmy Cowan, the presence of 15 players with Super Rugby experience ensures another solid core looking to chase a premiership playoff berth for the third straight year. Once again, they shouldn't die wondering.

CANTERBURY

Key player: Luke Whitelock. The No 8, who will once again captain Canterbury, was in such regal form for the Highlanders he forced new All Black Liam Squire to the bench. The question is whether Whitelock has got the legs to keep charging through the NPC.  

Watch out for: Lock David McDuling. The Aussie played a couple of seasons for the Reds in Super Rugby before transferring to the Sharks, where he made one appearance. Is his recruitment ahead of a local club player warranted? It's up to him to prove it.

The lowdown: Coach Scott Robertson's squad is bulging with talent, even when the eight All Blacks are removed from the roster. The importance of ensuring the Super Rugby reps don't get burned out, or bored, cannot be underestimated. If they fire, it will be game on.

HAWKE'S BAY

Key player: Ihaia West. The first-five will need all his Super Rugby experience to marshall a young backline missing midfield duo Richard Buckman and Andrew Horrell. 

Watch out for: Chiefs outside back Sam McNicol burst onto the Super Rugby scene this year and should be electric at this level.

The lowdown: They've recruited strongly with the likes of Chiefs halfback Brad Weber, his team-mate McNichol, Wellington prop Ben May and former All Black Ross Filipo joining the squad. Don't be surprised to see them pushing for a top-four spot come season's end.

COUNTIES MANUKAU

Key player: Jimmy Tupou. The lock/loose forward has been an integral part of the Counties squad for the past few years and is coming into his prime.

Watch out for: At 2.07m tall Cameron Skelton is sure to stand out. The lock is the younger brother of Wallaby Will Skelton.

The lowdown: Being the coach replacing Tana Umaga is like being the manager of Manchester Utd after Sir Alex Fergusson. But Darryl Suasua, the former Black Ferns coach is ready for the step up. Counties have lost eight players from last year's squad, but there's always a production line of young talent coming through in the province. Premiership survival should be attained again this year.

AUCKLAND

Key player: Loose forward Steven Luatua showcased just what he is capable of for the Blues in Super Rugby this year, expect that form to flow through to the provincial stage.

Watch out for: Siosiua Kaifa was named Auckland B's player of the year in 2015 and after some good club form as captain of the Manukau Rovers captain has been selected in the top Auckland team. 

The lowdown: Auckland have depth, skill and experience in their 2016 squad which should make them a real title threat again in 2016. Competition for places in the team should counter any possible complacency.

BAY OF PLENTY

Key player: Culum Retallick - The most experienced player in the Steamers squad, with 92 caps since his debut in 2007, is coming off a Super Rugby season with the Rebels, and will be vital by securing sound set-piece ball and delivering leadership.

Watch out for: Hugh Blake - the Tauranga-born former Otago and New Zealand Under-20 flanker represented Scotland in several sevens tournaments, and earned a test debut last year.

The lowdown: Following a last-place finish in the championship in 2014, Bay of Plenty made it to fourth last year and a semifinal loss, and will hope to make a bit more progress this season, with the recruitment of some handy sevens players in Joe Webber, Regan Ware, Isaac Te Aute and Blake, along with Italian international first-five Kelly Haimona.

MANAWATU

Key player: Otere Black. The young first five-eighth will be chomping at the bit after barely being used by the Hurricanes this year. 

Watch out for: Former Ireland under 20s player Harrison Brewer, son of former All Black Mike Brewer, has moved to the Turbos as he transitions from a midfielder to a loose forward.

The lowdown: The Turbos took plenty of lessons from losing their premiership-status in 2015. They have most of their squad back minus some old faces. The additions of Kane Thompson and Ngani Laumape should strengthen their chances.
They will be looking for a return to the top-flight with a spot in the championship playoffs an expectation.

SOUTHLAND

Key player: Jimmy Cowan. The former All Black halfback will bring some much needed experience to a young Stags outfit.

Watch out for: Western Force lock Matthew Philip, 22, has linked up with Southland in an attempt to develop his rugby in New Zealand.

The lowdown: It is shaping as a difficult 2016 season for the Stags as they look to rebuild. Southland has lost a wealth experience with the likes of Jamie Mackintosh and Josh Bekhuis missing. They have also lost their key attacking weapon, Willis Halaholo, who has joined Waikato.

A semifinal spot in the championship would be a good result.

OTAGO

Key player: Matt Faddes. Fresh off a fine season for the Highlanders, the 24-year-old will cause opposing teams plenty of problems with his speed and nose for the line.

Watch out for: Paul Grant is back after two years playing in Europe. The powerful No 8 has earned 57 caps for the blue and golds and hopes a strong season will propel him into the Highlanders next year.

The lowdown: Coach Cory Brown's goal this year is simple – win the championship. Anything but promotion won't sit well with the blue and golds a year after making the semifinals. With just two new caps in his side, Otago's experienced squad boasts more than 600 caps. Highlanders hooker Liam Coltman, one of nine players to play Super Rugby this year, will captain the side. A solid forward pack should give speedsters Matt Faddes, Tony Ensor and Gavin Stark plenty of opportunities to tear it up out wide.

WELLINGTON

Key player: Brad Shields. The skipper leads an experienced pack which should be able to dominate many of their Championship opponents.

Watch out for: Ginormous lock Sam Lousi has arrived from the Waratahs and could be an unstoppable force.

The lowdown: Promotion or bust. They were four minutes away from it last season. Falling short again would be another serious failure.

NORTH HARBOUR

Key player: Bryn Hall. It's been a steady rise for halfback Bryn Hall, but with August Pulu joining the Blues next year, he needs a stand out season.

Watch out for: Former Melbourne Storm winger Matt Duffie took time to find his feet in Super Rugby, but regular action for Harbour should see him excel.

The Lowdown: North Harbour have been an under performing union for a decade and have never even made it to the Championship semis in the current provincial rugby structure. But Steve Jackson has been able to steadily build some depth and experience in the team and at last, they could be involved in some playoff rugby this year.

NORTHLAND

Key player: Dan Pryor. Tough, tireless and experienced, the Highlanders flanker has again proven his quality at Super Rugby level this year.

Watch out for: Fleet-footed Fijian wing Jone Macilai scored five tries for the Crusaders in 2016, including a hat-trick against the Reds.

The lowdown: After failing to record a win last season, the only way is up for the Taniwha this year. While they have nine Super Rugby-contracted players in their squad, initial signs of a better 2016 have not been hugely positive. Northland conceded 73 points in 40 minutes against the All Blacks in "The Game of Three Halves", where they were also beaten 24-5 by Counties Manukau. A confidence-boosting win early in their campaign is crucial. 

 - Stuff

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