It may not be top shelf but at least there’s some decent rivalry   20 Sep 2005

Nathan Burdon

Some may gnash their teeth over a perceived fall in standards in the NPC’s first division, but I love it. I love the fact any team can beat any team, and this year they have been with Southland knocking over Otago and Taranaki downing Auckland 40-19 in one of the great comeback games in the history of the competition. Remember that was a Taranaki team that had lost at home to Southland the week before and had also suffered that heart-breaking end to a Ranfurly Shield challenge against Canterbury when Sam Young couldn’t pot a drop goal from out in front in the last minute.

I’d love to have the All Blacks involved in the NPC for more than just the last few rounds, but that’s not practical and it’s time to get over it. The likes of Tana Umaga and Richie McCaw may play one or two games at the most before heading to Europe to try and secure us a Grand Slam. Nobody knows a pro-fessional rugby player’s body better than themselves (except for possibly their wives, but best not to go there) and it should be left up to the player to decide when they are able to get back into the action. But I can also understand the reasons for the All Black management to keep a hand on the tiller in that situation because we can then avoid provincial coaches putting pressure on players or players coming back too early out of a sense of loyalty to their team. How about this weekend’s Shield challenge? Wellington will have Jerry Collins, Piri Weepu and Conrad Smith back from All Black duty, while Canterbury will still be missing most of its stars.

With three weeks to go in the competition, Auckland and Canterbury look like the likely finalists, with Wellington and any number of other teams capable of getting up into fourth spot. Waikato has a difficult run home and could struggle, while North Harbour could fight their way into the play-offs – which would obviously mean one of the Super 12 franchise teams being sent to bed without any dinner. Sure the standard may not be as high now that the country’s best 15 to 20 players play only a limited part, but at least there’s some sort of rivalry going on, rather than a procession of the big beating up on the small. Unfortunately this is not set to last, with four teams about to join the NPC premier division next season, which will undoubtedly struggle, at least initially. Some – okay one, Manawatu – may be a one season wonder given it can’t even make the semifinals of the second division this year and lost to Poverty Bay and North Otago during the past month.

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