Canterbury look unstoppable : Full NPC First Division preview
Huw Turner
August 14, 2002

New Zealanders love this annual test of provincial loyalties almost more than anything else in the rugby calendar. However, in the professional era, administrators are struggling to reconcile the demands of the international fixture list, and the demands made on New Zealand's top players , so that a tournament which reeks of the amateur days can continue to compete alongside that brash newcomer, the Super 12.

In Durban last weekend, Reuben Thorne openly conceded that members of the current All Black squad would have to think very carefully about how much of NPC 2002 they could commit to, bearing in mind the end of year tour of the UK and the demands of 2003, culminating in the World Cup. In the recent past we have seen little of the All Blacks until about round five, but because of the early finish to their 2002 Tri Nations campaign, there are expectations that we will see them earlier this year. That spells doom for all those Division One contenders hoping to have a crack at the Canterbury side before the reinforcements arrive.

As defending champions, Canterbury clearly go into this year's competition as favourites, but it is impossible to conceive of any side outside the main Super 12 franchise centres being anything other than also- rans. What more needs to be written about the Cantabrians ? Since last year Steve Hansen has moved on to coach Wales, but the resources at the disposal of his successor, Aussie McLean, are frightening. Sam Broomhall, who made his test debut in the Tri Nations, will captain the side and even if the first choicers do not front up immediately he can still rely on back-up from players who have test experience : Ben Blair, Nathan Mauger, Marika Vunibaka to name just three.

The main challenge seems likely to come from southern neighbours and rivals Otago , defeated at Jade Stadium in last year's final. Laurie Mains has stepped aside to let his lieutenants Greg Cooper and Wayne Graham take over. With a forward pack containing the likes of Taine Randell, Carl Hoeft, Carl Hayman and Paul Miller , all with points to prove to the All Black selectors, and Filipo Levi, Sam Harding and Kelvin Middleton, they will not be short of quality grunt up front. Danny Lee and Blair Feeney have moved south from relegated Counties - Manukau to strengthen half back resources and wider out Aisea Tuilevu and Ryan Nicholas offer plenty in attack. If there is any possibility of a Cantabrian stumble then Otago are the most likely beneficiaries.

In recent times Auckland have flattered to deceive.They have young talent in abundance -Mils Muliaina, James Arlidge back from Northland after a year on loan in 2001, Ali Williams - backed up by the experienced Kees Meeuws, Lee Stensness and Carlos Spencer. But their inability to develop their players has laid waste a number of very promising careers and this must surely be coach Wayne Pivac's last chance to demonstrate that he can restore the Aucklanders' fortunes.

Waikato should not be too inconvenienced by having Ian Foster taking over the coaching reins, he is Mooloo through and through. Their powerful backline , amongst which Randle, Ranby, Lowen are all dangerous runners, has been strengthened by the recruitment of Loki Crichton from Counties, but New Zealand rugby can ill afford to lose Bruce Reihana, UK bound at the end of this campaign. He toured with the All Blacks two years ago and could not have been far away from John Mitchell's present squad after a strong finish to the Super 12 season. David Hill , at first five, needs to resurrect his test prospects after making Mitchell's 2001 touring party. There is no shortage of pack power, Royce Willis has been back in the All Black frame, Marty Holah seems destined to go to the World Cup as back-up to Richard McCaw. No doubt Deon Muir will continue to provide the inspiration and the go-forward at crucial times.

North Harbour, semi finalists in 2001, have lost Buck Shelford to Saracens and will struggle to repeat last season's achievements. Fitness clouds continue to hover over Troy Flavell and Ron Cribb, although both will be desperate to remind John Mitchell of their credentials with the World Cup beginning to cast its shadow. Front rower Tony Woodcock will be closely watched, he had an outstanding Super 12 for the Blues and is one of New Zealand's brightest young tight forwards. Back rowers Matua Parkinson and Blair Urlich will provide the competitive edge , as always, although skipper Mark Robinson will have his work cut out leading an inexperienced back line. The loss of Willie Walker, to Otago, is serious, his form for the Highlanders testament to the quality of the coaching at Carisbrook.

The patchy form of Christian Cullen and Jonah Lomu has diminished perceptions of the Wellington backline being the most lethal in the competition. Although I would imagine both will be wanting a strong campaign to restore reputations. Tana Umaga was brilliant against the Springboks but how much of him are we likely to see ? The much -maligned pack will be weakened by the absence of Jerry Collins , dogged by injury , but I don't think it is too late for Rodney So'oialo or Kupu Vanisi to stake a claim for end of season All Black places. At their best in Super 12 , notably in the victory over the Brumbies in Canberra, they were very good indeed.

It would be good to see Northland consolidate their strong showing of the past two years by squeezing into the play-offs. It is also the tonic that the tournament needs to break up the big town monopoly. They will field a very strong pack. Led by the evergreen Glen Taylor , each of his four companions in the tight five has respectable Super 12 experience and form. Ex All Black prop Con Barrell is returning home in the autumn of his career and with hooker Derren Witcombe and Mike Storey forms a very good front row. Vula Maimuri muscles up with Taylor in the second row and Henwood , Tubbs and Waaka will be ruggedly competitive in the loose. Northland look vulnerable at half back, Jared Going getting the start at first five , but maybe scrum half Sam Pinder is now presented with the chance to really establish himself. There is no shortage of pace out wide, Fijians Fero and Caucau two of the most exciting attackers in NPC 2001. Having made the breakthrough in Super 12 with the Blues , and having the captaincy of the New Zealand u 21s in South Africa, this is a big season for Jason Shoemark in midfield. He could be an All Black in a couple of years.

The loss , through retirement , of the talismanic Andy Slater is a big blow to Taranaki. Thay have also lost back rower Campbell Feather to Japan and new skipper Paul Tito, another on John Mitchell's reserve list, will be eager to stamp his authority on his side. In recent seasons Taranaki , on the back of some mighty forward performances , have been the tournament's over-achievers. They have lacked quality behind the scrum, however, and this again seems likely to be their undoing.

Scrapping to avoid relegation is the best that either Bay of Plenty or Southland can hope for. Winning opportunities are going to be few, their plight alarmingly illustrating the gulf in standards between the first divisions top and bottom sides.

Tip for the title : Canterbury
Outsiders most likely to make an impact : Northland

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