By Michael Pulman
The NPC, or Mitre 10 Cup as it might be officially called, will continue to face a mindshare conundrum in 2019, and again, the hardcore rugby fan will likely be the most prominent consumer of the great action on show.
Smell that? That’s the smell of another season of NPC working its way through the foggy mornings and drifting ever closer to your television set.
Just how many will tune in to watch the 2019 version may vary, a lot, due to the small matter of a Rugby World Cup getting underway during the midpoint of what’s still refereed to as New Zealand’s “premier” grassroots rugby rep competition.
It is also, can you believe it, the last big home-grown rugby competition that Sky Sport will air in 2019.
But as rival Spark Sport (that online video streaming thing) cross their fingers, hoping the infrastructure holds up to cater for mass audiences from September onwards, Sky will try and deliver their best version of Mitre 10 Cup coverage yet, but just how many will be bothered to catch it for its full benefits will cause some headaches.
In reality, there is every reason to be excited for what the 2019 version of this once-great competition has to offer.
Last season proved that Canterbury are beatable after all, even if it takes what felt like a fortnight of extra time to get it done and crown Auckland the champions. Well, the champions of one division, the Premiership, whilst Waikato took the silverware in the second-tier Championship division.
Furthermore, women’s rugby will be represented well again as the Farah Palmer Cup continues to grow and draw more interest from NZR. Northland are the latest region to lace up and take on the competition, but as it’s been in the men’s scene for quite some time, success has mostly gone the way of Canterbury in recent times. 2018 saw that curse be broken in the men’s game, will the same happen in the Farah Palmer Cup? There is every chance.
The problem is the mindshare and subsequent engagement these competitions are going to get, or perhaps the lack thereof. Whilst the likes of Sky and all the rugby unions will talk about how interest is high, no doubt with some sort of metric system to try and back that up, the problem here is that for the casual rugby viewer, they’ve already got one eye on the Rugby World Cup which kicks off in September and are situation in the middle of the Investec Rugby Championship by the time the provincial competitions kick off.
Is there enough incentive for them to put aside more 80-minutes per week to watch their region competing for national glory? Perhaps yes, but not much more than that, and it goes against what I sense is the actual benefit to a competition like the Mitre 10 Cup.
In my mind, this competition showcases the talent of the up ‘n comers, plus the swansongs of some older, more recognizable players looking to end their careers with some silverware.
In other words, unless you’re the hardest of the hardcore, you probably won’t find yourself sitting through the large array of games ranging from Friday to Sunday and the odd weeknight game in between. You’ll miss the point of this competition, to see the talent right around the country with your own two eyes instead of just being told who’s hot and who’s not by our media.
All the things I’ve mentioned above have a certain sense of déjà vu attached don’t they?
When I was first starting out as a sports journalist, my first gig in pro rugby was covering Waikato in the Mitre 10 Cup. Even then, back in 2014, people were talking about how far down the chain New Zealand’s flagship provincial product had slid since the glory days where stadiums would be packed to the rafters, literally, for a game between any of the teams still representing their regions even today.
There is a certain romance to the NPC and I suspect a lot of yearning for it to generate more interest outside of whoever is defending the Ranfurly Shield one weekend.
But how does it compete in terms of mindshare with the juggernaut that is the All Blacks? Maybe it doesn’t, but leaving it to the hardcore rugby fan year in year out to get behind a competition that literally builds towards the future of NZR and the All Blacks brand seems a tactic destined to only provide mediocre returns.
The rugby on the park may be great, but it’s going seriously unnoticed in the grand scheme of things. That’s a shame for Joe Bloggs down the street who would put more emotion into his region winning the Ranfurly Shield than he would for the All Blacks winning a third-successive Rugby World Cup.
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