NPC taking shape

Tue, 19 Sep 2017 07:55
Large canterbury celebrate with npc trophy 800

NPC SPOTLIGHT: After five rounds, Rugby365 columnist Richard Neal separates the contenders from the pretenders in the National Provincial Championship.

The new addition to the New Zealand NPC this year is the Duane Monkley Player of the Year award, which is decided by the match officials.

They hand out three, two and one points to three players each game throughout the season, as is done in the ARL, culminating in a winner who has presented the new medal in December.

Currently, the top five is spread between different provinces, with Jack Goodhue of Northland atop the standings with eight points, followed by  (Counties Manukau), Braydon Ennor (Canterbury), Jordan Taufua (Tasman), and Bryn Gatland (North Harbour) all on six.

Halfway home and a clearer picture is beginning to take shape in the NPC 2017.

The usual suspects are up the top, but cracks have appeared in their veneer and the surprise packages are clawing them open piece by piece.

Premiership

Canterbury

Summary:
Always there at playoff time and, with a lead already, it would still be hard to bet against them, even after their thrashing by Wellington.

Ones To Watch:
Centre pairing Rob Thompson and Tim Bateman seem to be able to click when they are with anyone but especially together. Likewise, Richie Mo’unga and Mitchell Drummond, who appear to be pushing for higher honours and are building a solid case for it.

It’s also hard to go past the young outside backs, Braydon Ennor, George Bridge and Marshall Suckling, who have shown skills, speed and finishing ability.

Prediction:
First, come the end of regular season and first come the final.

North Harbour

Summary:
Recently promoted, Harbour certainly won’t be falling into the trap of recent Premiership newbies. They’ve started very strongly and are currently the only unbeaten side left, having taken out Division 1 rivals Counties and easily dispatched of Auckland.

Ones To Watch:
The Hibiscus have built their side around the Bryns, Gatland and Hall, who are both excellent generals and leaders in their own right.

In the pack Harbour boast veterans such as James Parsons, Jarrad Hoeata and Chris Eves, to keep the youngsters in line and focused when the pressure comes on.

Last but not least, Matt Vaega is a monster in the midfield and has been for several seasons. If he doesn’t get a regular Super Rugby start next year it will be astonishing.

Prediction:
They have gained confidence from their relatively soft start to the season, but they have Canterbury, Tasman and Waikato in their short turn-around week and then Taranaki on the final day. It will probably come down to the final game, but I think they’ll drop to third.

Taranaki

Summary:
Taranaki had a shaky start but kept winning against Premiership opposition. They were finally beaten by Wellington, but got straight back on the horse and started winning again. Not always the most convincing, but a win is a win.

The Bulls will be hoping talismanic inside centre Charlie Ngatai’s head knock this past week is not too serious, as they push towards the finals.

Ones To Watch:
Three-time All Black Seta Tamanivalu is back to his 2015 form that got him into the test side and under 20’s World Cup-winning flyhalf is magic when he’s on song, but it’s the traditional forward platform that the Bulls rely on when going gets tough.

Mitchell Graham, Ricky Riccitelli and Angus Ta’avao have several seasons together in the front row, and it is their hard work that gives the fast backline space.

Eighth man, Toa Halafihi is a rock. Great in the tight and strong over the ball, he gets around the park well and makes sure his tackles are felt.

Prediction:
They have their short-turnaround week in the last week of the regular season and their final game will likely decide a home semi-final against the same opponents.

North Harbour will have more in their favour (the game is in Albany although Harbour will have played twice in the week prior; against the Bulls who have a Ranfurly Shield challenge and then two games in a week). Taranaki to beat Harbour and steal second at the final second.

Tasman

Summary:
Tasman slipped up in the first few rounds, being soundly thumped by Canterbury and then upset by Manawatu. The Makos looked destined for relegation, unable to put together anything resembling a competitive performance. And then it all turned around and they scrapped through their last three games by 2 points each.

Ones To Watch:
It’s James Lowe’s final season before he jets off overseas and he looks as if he is loving every minute of it.

Jordan Taufua’s combination with Ethan Blackadder and Vernon Fredericks is very well balanced and proving to be a huge asset for the Makos.

Lock Alex Ainley has a huge ticker, making an average of 12.5 tackles per game and having only missed seven (90% tackle success rate).

Prediction:
They should win two of their last three games (Southland and Counties) to hold onto their semi-final spot… just.

Waikato

Summary:
After a promising start, they have capitulated and the short turn-around week has taken a massive toll. Waikato need a shot in the arm very soon if they are to compete in the very difficult end of season.

Ones To Watch:
Welcome back Zac Guildford. He has been a more than ample replacement for Shaun Stephenson, who went back to his native province of North Harbour.

The Jacobson brothers, Luke and Mitchell, are playing some fantastic rugby as the loose forward combination. Although, with Jordan Manihera available, Waikato’s loose trio appear more balanced, score more tries and have regular go-forward.

Sevu Reece is an excitement machine, whether on his natural wing or slipping in to cover at centre.

Prediction:
Sadly for Waikato supporters, the rot has only just started and they will continue to slip as they still have to play Wellington, Canterbury and North Harbour. With only four points between fifth and last, it could be a fast drop. Waikato to head for the second division next year.

Auckland

Summary:
The largest player base in the country lost to both of its neighbours, Counties Manukau by 2 and North Harbour by the largest margin ever (47). They appear to be heading in the right direction but with Jerome Kaino recalled to the All Blacks, the semis appear a touch too far.

Ones To Watch:
The star-studded backline including George Moala, Malakai Fekitoa and Vince Aso hasn’t fired like it was expected to.

Jerome Kaino fits seamlessly back into the loose forwards alongside basketball convert Taleni Seu and openside fringe AB Blake Gibson.

Prediction:
Auckland will most likely fall at the last hurdle, ending their campaign strongly but not strongly enough. Auckland will probably finish exactly where they did last year, fifth.

Counties Manukau

Summary:
A very difficult start to the season for the Steelers, they have been beaten by four of their Premiership rivals, with wins against Division 1 side Auckland and Division 2 side Hawkes’ Bay. They were soundly beaten in their most recent match, by Canterbury 78-5, in the largest loss of the season so far.

Ones To Watch:
Tim Nanai-Williams has come back to New Zealand without missing a beat and his performances from both fullback and centre have been filled with his trademark fleet of foot.

Augustine Pulu is doing his best to snap up that third All Blacks scrumhalf spot when Tawera Kerr-Barlow eventually jets off overseas.

The 140 kg monster Kalolo Tuiloma burst onto the scene in 2016, scoring numerous tries for the Steelers, and with his regular starts he is making a big impact this season, too.

Prediction:
If they can bounce back the Steelers should be able to pass at least one rival and end outside the relegation zone on sixth. They have 3 Championship teams and only 1 Premiership opponent left, so it’s the easiest run-in for a Division 1 team.

Championship

Wellington

Summary:
The Lions started well going four from four, including a win over Taranaki, but then slipped up against Tasman.

Most recently they had a huge morale-boosting victory over Canterbury, but many pundits are saying that the men from the capital are once again peaking too early and will run out of steam around the finals.

Ones To Watch:
The under-20 forwards have made a massive impact this season: Aumua Asafo, Alex Fidow and Isaia Walker-Leawere all look like All Blacks in the making.

Jackson Garden-Bachop has improved out-of-sight after a very difficult season with the Rebels this year, and with strike weapons like Julian Savea, Wes Goosen and Ben Lam, he’s making all the right moves.

The surprise package this year has been 20-year-old Du Plessis Kirifi. Named after Western Province loose forward Morne Du Plessis, the solid loose forward is good over the breakdown and excellent with ball in hand.

Prediction:
It’s a big call considering their propensity to choke come playoffs time, but I think Wellington could regain Premiership status this season.

Northland

Summary:
After several years of under-achieving, including a solo win in their previous 20 outings prior to this season, finally Northland are winning and their fans are delighted.

The crowds at Okara Park are back in droves and drive their team on like a 16th player. Their massacre of Waikato was proof of that.

Ones To Watch:
The talented midfield combo that auto-clicked when they came together this season, Jack Goodhue and Rene Ranger.

Also, the breakdown maestros that have been putting on a clinic for the opposition, including Dan Pryor, Jack Ram and Matt Matich.

Their back three of Jordan Hyland, Solomona Alaimalo and Jone Macilai have benefited from a superb midfield combination, but they have the speed and skills to produce from nothing if required.

Prediction:
It’s a fairy-tale season so far and just like North Harbour last year and Hawkes’ Bay and Manawatu before them they have just as much chance to win promotion.

Even if they don’t, the team will be much better off for the experience and ready to challenge again in 2018. So, I’ll say they’ll end second on the Championship log and fall in the playoffs.

Otago

Summary:
Otago has requited themselves well so far in 2017. They have beaten all their Championship opposition and picked up a bonus-point in each of their three losses to Premiership teams.

The southerners’ best performances this season were their smashing of Hawkes’ Bay and their narrow Ranfurly Shield loss to Canterbury in rounds four and two respectively.

Ones To Watch:
Can’t go past the man with the highest individual score in a single match, Fletcher Smith, who has switched seamlessly to fullback for mercurial flyhalf Josh Ioane to slot in.

Otago generally play dual Highlanders opensides, with young buck Dillion Hunt who has huge raps in a very short time, and his veteran partner James Lenjies who is the team workhorse.

Prediction:
Otago must play both of their closest rivals, away from home, within 5 days of one another. However, they have two almost guaranteed wins in their final two weeks against Bay Of Plenty and Southland to make up for it.

They should be able to hold onto third, but if they manage to beat one of the teams above them, they may climb to second.

Manawatu

Summary:
Since dropping out of the Premiership in 2015, Manawatu have been on a slow, steady decline in form.

This season the Turbos have lost the service of several of their game-breakers and the depth in the backline hasn’t quite been able to cover them.

Ones To Watch:
Otere Black is exceptionally consistent, in both goal-kicking and distribution. He may not be an x-factor player, but when he has those outside him that are, he is very apt at unleashing them.

Australian prop Michael Alaalatoa has been putting in powerful performances every game for Manawatu and the 135kg Crusader has been working hard on attack and defence.

Prediction:
Apart from Counties and Taranaki, the Turbos only face direct rivals and their standing come the end of the competition will depend greatly on their week 6 match against Northland and the final game of the regular season against Hawkes’ Bay.
It is hard to see Bay Of Plenty, Hawkes’ Bay or Southland getting enough momentum to pass Manawatu, so they should make the semi-final in the fourth spot.

Bay Of Plenty

Summary:
Their strong scrummaging and fantastic wings are unfortunately not enough to get a team into the semi-finals, so they will need to find something extra if they want to compete in the post-season.

Ones To Watch:
Monty Ioane and Joe Webber have been the Bay’s attacking weapons out wide and Ioane will certainly feature once Super Rugby season rolls around again.

Jesse Parete missed several games in the first half of the season, but his return in round five could be the spark that the Steamers need to make a play for the finals.

Prediction:
Three of their last five matches are against Premiership opposition, so it would be hard to believe they could make a run for the playoffs. They’ll most likely end the season sitting fifth like 2016.

Hawkes’ Bay

Summary:
After their under-performing 2016 season where they won just two matches, the Magpies were looking to bounce straight back up into the Premiership. However, their young side have had a very difficult time.

First up, Hawkes’ Bay beat Southland, but then they were convincingly defeated by Bay Of Plenty, Canterbury, Wellington, Otago and Counties.

Ones To Watch:
One time All Black, Brad Weber, returned to the Magpies after a horrific leg injury sustained at the Brisbane 10s last year, to speed up their delivery.

2017 Under 20s World Cup winning flyhalf Tiaan Falcon has shifted to fullback for the most part and has a lot to offer, but also a lot to learn.

Prediction:
It’s hard to imagine them picking up a single win from their final four matches. Beating only Southland by default.

Southland

Summary:
Southland is this year’s whipping boy and is, sadly, showing few signs of changing that.
So far, the Stags have not won a game, but in their Ranfurly Shield match they drew the first half 17 all. And that is all they have to brag about.

Ones To Watch:
Ex-league player Matthew Johnson is superb at making holes in defences, with a solid fend and quick feet he breaks multiple tackles every match.

Loose forward Phil Halder has upped his physicality this season to go with his high work rate. He makes almost 14 tackles and 1.25 breakdown turnovers per match.

Prediction:
Last.

By Richard Neal
@RichardTNeal
@rugby365com