By Scott MacLean
“What the hell’s going on out here” is an oft-repeated clip of the late famed NFL coach Vince Lombardi wondering what his Green Bay Packers team was up to. But it could just as easily apply to this year’s Mitre10 Cup (aka rugby’s National Provincial Championship) that’s provided plenty that just seems so out of whack with what we’ve come to expect.
For instance; it was easy to put North Harbour’s elevation last year to the Premiership down to getting hot at just the right time. Yet here they are, the last unbeaten and playing some great footy; a state of affairs that not even Harbour Heather would probably have predicted a few weeks ago. Further north usual doormats Northland have already won three games, which is two more than the previous two seasons combined.
On the other side of the coin? For starters there’s Auckland who with all their talent have been woeful – Vince Aso isn’t even a shadow of the player that lit up Super Rugby and Malakai Fekitoa can’t wait to get on the plane to his next gig in France. They might be ‘too big’ to fall into the Championship, but they said that about Wellington once too. Waikato have twice capitulated to second-tier opposition, and Hawkes Bay have been simply turgid and you wonder if they’d beat the dominant Hastings Boys High 1st XV.
And then there’s oddities like Manawatu who have won both games against Premiership opposition, but lost every game against their Championship counterparts.
There’s been some form of ‘normal’; Taranaki are lurking within striking distance of the top of the table, Southland are horrible and points-less let alone winless, and Wellington – with Asafo Aumua doing ridiculous things and Jackson Garden-Bachop looking a completely different player after a season with the Melbourne Rebels – again steaming away at the top of the Championship. Of course with the Lions there’s that small issue of playoff games yet to be addressed…..
The most normal sight of course is the Evil Empire (otherwise known as “Canterbury”) steamrolling opponents, with the only apparent weakness being failing to get past 78 points in a match. That was until they showed up at Westpac Stadium on Sunday to face Wellington and – in the most eyebrow-raising result so far – suffered their heaviest NPC defeat ever and retreated back to Christchurch in humiliation.
They’ll probably win the whole bloody thing though. Again.
A chunk of this madness is however down to the schedule. To fit a meaningful competition into a timeframe dictated by several factors that apparently include a desire not to throttle grassroots level further the competition condenses a 10-game schedule into 9 weeks. At some stage every team will endure having to play twice in a five day stint and – for all bar Northland – that is part of a 3-games-in-11-days stretch. Except if you’re Auckland, who played three times in 9 days(!) and then again just six days after that.
The results for those teams backing up so far? Well…..
Auckland: v Waikato 27-35, v North Harbour 10-57
Waikato: v Tasman 29-31
Hawkes Bay: v Otago 21-64
Wellington: v Tasman 35-37
Northland: v North Harbour 22-31
Counties: v Hawkes Bay 33-14
Canterbury: v Wellington 14-60
Played eight. Seven losses. 191 points for, 329 against.
Only Counties won on the short turnaround, which came after their Ranfurly Shield hiding, and it’s perhaps telling that Wellington’s and the Evil Empire’s only losses so far came in those games.
The Mitre10 Cup still has plenty of twists and turns yet to come, and when they do it might just pay to look at the schedule and see who’s on the short turnaround. Perhaps it’s the only certainty amongst the chaos, and maybe a way to make some easy money off of the TAB.
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