In 2020, the Premiership was remarkably tight and you had the extraordinary occurrence of North Harbour being relegated after winning five games, the semifinalists and finishing order not determined until deep into the final regular season match.
You are a brave person if you can confidently and correctly predict the finishing order in both sections this season, which sees the competition back to its usual late winter kickoff slot on the calendar, starting on August 6.
The Premiership again looms as an even competition, with all teams more than capable of contesting the semifinals. Perhaps crossover defeats to Championship teams will again be decisive.
Auckland, after narrowly losing the 2020 final to Tasman, is again a strong contender. The Auks will miss departing captain TJ Faiane, but have made some interesting signings, none more prominent than Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, who returns to his 15-a-side roots after a glittering career in league. Just where he fits into the Auckland backline will offer some clue as to what style the 2018 champs will adopt.
The Mako have seven All Blacks, including talismanic captain David Havili, so their depth will be under the spotlight like never before, but they have a largely settled roster which can challenge for a threepeat.
Canterbury, which has signed former All Blacks wing Waisake Naholo, will be desperate to at least reach the semifinals again after missing the top four for the first time in years.
The dark horses could be the Bay of Plenty Steamers, under new coach Daryl Gibson and with some astute new signings in Sean Wainui, Whetukamokamo Douglas, Naitoa Ah Kuoi and Manaaki Selby-Rickit. It is 45 years since the Steamers won the inaugural NPC, but they will be favoured to at least make the semifinals.
Much will depend on how Hawke’s Bay copes with the pressure of defending the Ranfurly Shield. A settled roster, which includes new signing Ere Enari at halfback, could crack the semifinals if they can win all its home and crossover games.
Waikato has a new head coach in Ross Filipo and will lean on two veteran loose forwards, Liam Messam, on 93 games for the Mooloos, and Jack Lam, to lead the way for a youngish team that is equipped to reach the playoffs.
The Wellington Lions will miss Jackson Garden-Bachop but has two young No 10s, Ruben Live and Aidan Morgan, who could lead this team to the promised land.
In the Championship, the picture is potentially clearer. Otago and Taranaki, on paper, appear to have the stronger squads, with X-factor throughout their backlines, but the five other sides – Counties Manukau, Northland, Southland, North Harbour and Manawatu – all have enough quality to hold realistic aspirations of making the semis. The Turbos have made some key signings, including veteran centre Jason Emery and Crusaders No 10 Brett Cameron. North Harbour is relatively settled and will lean on the two Bryns again, Hall and Gatland.
Southland has made some decent mid-tier signings, and will look to new All Black Ethan de Groot to bolster the scrum as the Stags seek to crack the Championship semis for the first time since 2014.
The ‘golden point’ rule is again in place, meaning no draws before the semifinals, while red carded players can be subbed after 20 and a 50:22 kick rule will reward the attacking team.
The ‘flying wedge’ tactic has been banned, where two or more players bind together with the ball carrier, and there is more protection for dangerous cleaning out of the jackler, which may help reduce injuries in that often dangerous position.
Unlike in 2020, all unions have been able to get through a productive pre-season, there are no restrictions on crowds, and the rugby will again be high octane and infused with provincial pride. What’s not to like about the Bunnings NPC?