OPINION: Forget what the naysayers are telling you - our national provincial rugby championship is, and forever will be, a vital part of New Zealand rugby.
In fact this year's NPC competition will carry even more importance, given some of the glaring holes in terms of depth in key positions at both international and Super Rugby levels.
From an All Black point of view loosehead prop, hooker and second five are the obvious ones, while locks will be keenly watched by all Super Rugby coaches but especially the Blues, Chiefs and Hurricanes.
There is also a small market for halfbacks as well.
Let's use hookers as an example.
While Andrew Hore will start the Bledisloe Cup test tonight with centurion Keven Mealamu on the bench, All Black coach Steve Hansen has clearly tapped Dane Coles as his preferred number two as he looks to the future.
Hansen will be very keen to get at least one, possibly two, young rakes into the All Blacks mix for the end of year tour, especially for the "development" test against Japan on November 2.
Ben Funnell, Liam Coltman, James Parsons, Hika Elliot and Rhys Marshall are likely candidates, while someone like Codie Taylor, whose season has been ended by a pectoral injury, would also have been in the mix.
Going hand-in-hand with the hooking contest will be the chance for young lock forwards to propel themselves into Super Rugby contention.
The Chiefs are on the lookout for two, maybe three, second-row forwards.
Inspirational co-captain Craig Clarke has departed for Ireland, while once the necessary paperwork is complete, Romana Graham will be on his way to England to become an Exeter Chief.
The now two-times Super Rugby champions brought in a young Argentine lock, Tomas Lavanini, for a few weeks mid-season with an eye on possibly signing him up for a Super Rugby campaign.
That's a move that could be considered a telling sign, given how good coaches Rennie and Coventry in particular have been in uncovering young New Zealand diamonds in the rough.
Not every Super Rugby franchise is going to go down the Benji Marshall route in terms of recruitment, irrespective of this being the start of the semi-privatisation era.
Most available 2014 Super Rugby contracts with New Zealand franchises will be filled by provincial players.
And all of the available spots on the All Blacks tour to Japan, France, England and Ireland will be filled by provincial players.
So where are those players going to prove themselves between now and then?
The only place they can - the NPC - the best, most proven provincial competition in terms of developing world-class rugby talent.
Nigel Yalden is a Waikato-based sports commentator for Newstalk ZB and radio sport.
- © Fairfax NZ News