12 Jun

You've gotta love it…
by Tracey Nelson
12 Jun 2007

Despite some vacuous wailings coming from certain media circles in the past few weeks, the Air New Zealand Cup provincial rugby competition is not in decline and a boring spectacle, but is alive and kicking. Kicking some serious butt, in actual fact.

Last year saw the launch of the Air New Zealand Cup competition, with the previous NPC revamped from three divisions into just two – ostensibly to distinguish between the professional and amateur levels of the game in our provinces. Fourteen teams now make up the Premier Division, with Hawkes Bay, Counties-Manukau, Manawatu, and Tasman (the amalgamation of Marlborough and Nelson Bays) coming up from Division Two to join the established Division One sides.

In 2006, Manawatu and Tasman certainly struggled with the step up to the Premier Division and despite some brave performances finished at the bottom of the ladder, Manawatu only managing a draw as their best result. Hawkes Bay and Counties-Manakau also battled to be competitive against the bigger guns in their first year back at the top level for some time. The doomsayers shook their heads and predicted that these teams would continue to struggle, and really what was the point in them trying to compete with the Super unions because the gap was too big. It was never going to work.

However, in the space of just one year the worm has well and truly turned and the big guys are being taught a lesson or two in how the game is played out in the provinces. This has been a timely reminder for some top professional players that rugby is not a game for Nancy Boys, and you do have to get your jersey dirty from time to time. Yes, we may not be seeing the sweeping try movements we’re used to on the firm, late summer ground we have in the Super 14, but the ANZC games are no less of a spectacle in my opinion. Given the wet, wintery conditions in many of the games to date, there have been some exceptional performances and honest endeavour to play fifteen man rugby. Good old fashioned rugby at that, you might say.

Hawkes Bay have proven to be giant slayers, first winning a slug-fest against last year’s semi-finalist Wellington in the rain and mud at Blue Chip Stadium (and teaching them a thing or two about scrummaging on the way), then two weeks later producing another home win against Ranfurly Shield holders North Harbour. Tasman managed to topple Hawkes Bay in Blenheim between times, showing the visitors that you can’t assume you’ll win a game on the back of your last performance.

Manawatu topped things off in Round 4 by recording a famous victory at FMG Stadium in Palmerston North – beating Bay of Plenty in their first Premier Divison win for 19 years. And not just by a point or two, but beating them comprehensively with some tremendous backline moves to score four tries and come away with maximum points from the game. This was just reward for a side that has toiled tirelessly without result, yet has a loyal fan base that turn out every game despite the lack of wins.

Barely into the second year of the new provincial competition, suddenly we’re not seeing teams going into games against the minnows confident of coming away with a win. They are having to work hard to score points and in some cases are lucky to come out with the win. Despite Auckland and Canterbury heading the points table, I’m not sure that anyone thought Hawkes Bay would be sitting in third place behind them. Nor that the likes of Northland and Tasman would be in the top half of the table while Wellington, North Harbour and Otago are sitting forlornly below.

There is a new excitement pumping in the veins of the forgotten provinces, the unions who have had to fight hard to keep their heads above the financial waterline as the game went professional with the added crisis of urban drift decimating their rugby playing populations. But they’re back, and although it’s a gradual strengthening it’s a strengthening nonetheless. It’s great to see the familiar face of provincial rugby again, and how refreshing it is to see some traditional props, guys who look like they ate the entire menu at KFC but who can scrummage till the cows come home. Likewise it’s nice to know there are still some skinny chaps that can run like whippets playing out on the wings. As one mate quipped recently – even better than watching is listening to the local radio commentators giving their version of what’s going on. Plenty of Kiwi accents and parochialism, mixed with decidedly non-PC comment.

So by all means try and tell the folk in Napier, Blenheim, Palmerston North and any of our other provincial centres that the ANZC is boring, and nobody is interested in it. I dare say that like their rugby teams, they would be more than capable of taking you on in that argument and coming out on top.

[In the picture above the representatives of the four new teams are: Tasman's Nathan George, Counties Manukau's Ben Meyer, Manawatu's Josh Bradnock and Hawke's Bay's Mutu Ngarimu.]

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