Empty stands a sign of NPC decay
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: rugby365 columnist Richard Neal, looks at the lack of spectators in New Zealand's National Provincial Championship.
The NPC is not getting the support it should and, for several years, crowds are staying away in droves.
This is a bit embarrassing considering a host of the players from three of this year's four Super Rugby semi-finalists and both of the teams that competed for 2015's trophy are in the competition.
This level of competition is an integral part of the New Zealand structure and the point where age grade players step into the professional environment.
We consistently see players making break-out performances and, with the defences slightly looser, backline players like Damian McKenzie, Rob Thompson and Melani Nanai tear oppositions up.
While forwards such as Vaia Fifita, Jordan Taufua and Pete Samu make a name for themselves by scoring incredible tries that are much rarer in higher levels of the game.
The great Richie McCaw himself jumped straight into the All Blacks after a single masterful NPC season for Canterbury.
This year we will see the stars of the future joining the competition and if you look closely you'll see them doing extraordinary things before the rest of the world even knows their names.
Players like Jordie Barrett (Canterbury), Fin Hoeata (Taranaki) and Jonah Lowe (Hawke's Bay) step out of age grade and into the dim spotlight of the NPC.
Also, the giant that is Cameron Skelton (2.07m / 145kg) has shifted to Counties and then there are players few have even heard of like Northland's Solomona Alaimalo or Tasman's Finlay Christie.
It is not unique to New Zealand.
South Africa are experiencing similar problems with their premier domestic competition, the Currie Cup.
It has been diluted to an extent that some games this season hardly attract a few hundred spectators - despite the presence of the bulk of the country's Super Rugby players.
If we look to the incredibly successful and highly-viewed College Football in the United States we see that it's more than just the game.
The high-level entertainment that goes along with each and every match helps to bring in the crowds.
Funding American College Football is slightly easier, not only due to the larger population base, but also, the players are not professional yet and that is a big expense curtailed.
But why does New Zealand not have pre-game and half-time entertainment at a higher quality and variety than we currently possess?
The Americans have their cheerleaders, marching bands, gymnasts, performers etc and we get a guy trying to kick a goal to win some money, a guy on a crane revving his chainsaw and your uncle's cuzzies spluttering drunkenly into a microphone … and that's it.
I know the rugby enthusiasts amongst us are there to watch the game in its pure form, but we have to face the harsh modern reality that rugby is an entertainment product and if there is no money, we don't have full-time players that are among the best in the world playing week-in and week-out on TV screens and in properly manicured stadiums.
I'm not saying we should use American-centric entertainment, but we need something to attract crowds to the grounds.
New Zealand have a blossoming Kapa Haka scene, a vibrant music culture and a strong amateur and women's sporting base.
There is easily room for an opening game starting an hour and a half before the feature game, half-time performances and even pre- and post-game music.
If the whole experience improves, the atmosphere improves and attracts a whole new diverse crowd.
Also, why not add a Televised Player Draft and Pre-Season Skills Competition Weekend?
The High School XVs competitions are becoming more popular, including televised First XV Rugby, and having a draft into NPC teams would increase interest from the school-age demographic and their families and show that the professional pathways are well and truly open.
From a personal interest standpoint, I would love to know who the fastest and strongest players in the leagues are and introduce a hybrid NFL-Combine Weekend/NBA-Slam-Dunk Competition where each team submits players to compete in different events. It would be fascinating and could get some good ratings if televised.
Example events could be: 40m Sprint; 100m Sprint; 10m Shuttles; Hurdles;
For the forwards: Truck Pull; Weightlifting;
Team events: Three-on-three Basketball; Dodgeball.
Whatever happens, this season is going to be a fascinating competition that will sadly fall by the wayside as it is yet again overshadowed by other competitions such as the Rugby Championship and, of course, the Olympics.
By Richard Neal