Mitre 10 Cup no longer priority but still good watch

The Mitre 10 Cup will kick off tomorrow night when North Harbour takes on Northland. For the next two months, provinces will do battle. Rugby writer Steve Hepburn takes a look at the competition and who will come out on top.

It has now been 42 years since the first national provincial championship was played.

Surprisingly, Bay of Plenty won it then - and has never won it since.

But is it time to start thinking about what this competition is serving and what it is supposed to do?

Is it a cutthroat professional competition in which the best comes to the top? Or is it a development competition to get young players up to speed for Super Rugby? Or is it a just a fading relic of a previous time which has long since left the building?

The days of huge games and massive crowds for this competition have long gone. Parochialism has also faded.

Various factors, many of them out of control of New Zealand Rugby, have made sure the focus for the fan of the 15-man code is firstly on the All Blacks and then Super Rugby.

The Mitre 10 Cup has slipped down the ladder and there is now a big gap between Mitre 10 Cup and Super Rugby.

That was always going to happen as life and the game got more specialised and the two - provinces and Super Rugby organisations - went their separate ways.

What is worrying for this competition is the number of players who are simply bypassing playing for their province. They either head overseas or put the feet up to rest for the next Super Rugby competition.

Of the 38 players picked for the Highlanders squad in 2018, 16 will not be playing for their province. Some are in the All Blacks, while others prefer to play overseas or are laid up injured.

Many players are heading to Japan to pick up the big bucks rather than playing for their province. There used to be a hard and fast rule that players had to play more than 70 Super Rugby games to be allowed to play in Japan and then come back and play Super Rugby.

Now that seems to have disappeared as New Zealand Rugby takes a more practical approach to letting players go to Japan and at least still have them play Super Rugby. That may help Super Rugby but does not do much for the likes of Bay of Plenty, which is without Tom Franklin, or Hawke's Bay, which cannot call on Richard Buckman.

Taranaki is without five Super Rugby players as they recover from injury while other unions simply stockpile players.

It seems strange unions as strong as Canterbury are bringing in props from Queensland, and hauling out veterans, yet Southland does not have one single Super Rugby player on its books.

But through whatever ways and means, the Mitre 10 Cup is simply a competition like no other.

That is perhaps what makes it not a bad watch. There are always story lines, the defence is looser, which makes for more scoring, and the weather is on the whole more conducive to running rugby.

So sit back and watch - it is entertaining. Last year Wellington scored a record 74 tries in 12 games. And there was only one dreaded dropped goal in the entire competition - one too many.

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