New Zealand’s National Provincial Championship – this year branded as the Mitre 10 Cup – is always one of the most enjoyable competitions in club rugby, performing a key role in the nation’s talent development process. Nehe Milner-Skudder’s performances for Manawatu in 2014 served as a springboard to Super Rugby and international recognition in 2015, while the part played by Seta Tamanivalu in Taranaki’s championship victory that same season led to a place in the Chiefs squad and a cap for the All Blacks in June 2016. The competition also provides an opportunity – arguably unparalleled in world rugby – for age-grade players to prove themselves against top competition. The NZRU will undoubtedly be disappointed with a fifth-place finish in this year’s U20 World Championship, but the manner in which the side rebounded from sloppy pool-stage performances against Ireland and Wales to score nineteen tries in two emphatic knockout victories was indicative of the attacking talent at Scott Robertson’s disposal, and many of these young players will be heavily involved with their provinces over the coming weeks.
In the Premiership Division, Canterbury second five-eighth Jordie Barrett is likely to be the stand-out from this year’s U20 crop. The younger brother of Beauden and Scott is eligible at U20 level again next season, but was easily one of the team’s top performers in June. He is a clever footballer with the ability to kick off both feet, and complements his excellent skills on the ball with the awareness and vision to pick gaps in midfield:
Barrett has played at fullback in preseason, and may line up there in Canterbury’s opening fixture against Auckland on Saturday.
Shaun Stevenson gained a lot of experience in last year’s NPC with Waikato, and should start in their backline again in 2016. Jordan Trainor – who has been troubled by injury and illness so far this season – may join him in the back three, and Mitchell Jacobson should get some playing time in the 7 shirt.
Second row Quinten Strange has been selected in Tasman’s NPC squad, while Jonathan Taumateine and Orbyn Leger have been named for Counties Manukau. They open at home to Counties Manukau, whose squad includes back row Hapakuki Moala-Liava’a.
Stephen Perofeta has featured at 10 for Taranaki in preseason, and is another 2017-eligible back who will be looking to establish himself in a starting role; he attacks the line exceptionally well at first receiver, and showed some excellent touches at the U20WC:
Newly-promoted Hawke’s Bay kick off against Wellington in a repeat of last year’s Championship final, with U20 no. 8 Marino Mikaele-Tu’u and centre/wing Jonah Lowe in line for possible starting roles. Wellington have named three of New Zealand’s most promising 2017-eligible forwards in their playing squad: Alex Fidow and Asafo Aumua are dynamic front-rowers, while Isaia Walker-Leawere had such an impact in June that he was called into the Hurricanes training squad for the last few weeks of Super Rugby:
TJ Va’a will compete for the fly-half shirt with Jackson Garden-Bachop, while outside back Peter Umaga-Jensen – who is likely to be one of New Zealand’s most important players in next year’s U20 Championship – is also in the squad.
Otago centre Sio Tomkinson is a powerful midfield ball-carrier who has been involved with the Highlanders’ Wider Training Group for two seasons, but is still a raw prospect; his defensive awareness and decision-making at 13 came under scrutiny in the pre-tournament games against Australia, and some mistakes were again noticeable in New Zealand’s final game in June:
With more exposure to a high level of rugby over the next couple of months, however, Highlanders coach Tony Brown will hope that he continues to improve as he could be an important part of their Super Rugby side in 2017.
Northland struggled in last season’s competition (earning only a bonus point in ten games), but scrum-half Sam Nock should get plenty of development time; his passing and sniping around the base are very strong, but defensive positioning and decision-making are two areas in which he needs to improve.
In addition, there are a number of U19 players getting their first experience of provincial rugby in their first year out of school – strong performances will give them an excellent chance to be selected in next year’s U20 squad. Some names to watch are Tasman wing Tima Faingaanuku, Hawke’s Bay fly-half Tiaan Falcon and North Harbour centre James Little.