Coach blasts NZ Rugby's "spineless" NPC decision

Publish Date
Wednesday, 13 October 2021, 7:49AM
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Taranaki head coach Neil Barnes has blasted New Zealand Rugby's decision to scrap promotion and relegation from this year's NPC, labelling the decision "spineless".

NZ Rugby today confirmed the NPC draw for the rest of the season, with several adjustments made to the competition due to Covid-19 and the withdrawal of the three teams in the Auckland region.

Among those changes include removing promotion and relegation from the Premiership and Championship divisions, which NZR general manager of community rugby Steve Lancaster said in a press release would "ensure the competition outcomes are as fair as possible" with the Auckland region unable to compete.

But Barnes, whose Taranaki side sits unbeaten at the top of the Championship ladder and were favourites to receive automatic promotion to the Premiership, questioned the fairness of NZR's decision.

"To be perfectly honest I only found out half an hour ago when I walked off the training field but to say I'm bitterly disappointed is an understatement," Barnes told Newstalk ZB on Tuesday afternoon.

"To say that it's not fair on the teams up top to come down when not everyone's played, there's only one team not playing in their competition. If they finish up at the bottom of it, that's their problem.

"But how can it be fair on every Championship team in the competition to not have the chance to go up? How can it be fair when Manawatū is going really well, Taranaki has beaten three out of three Premiership teams and Otago have still got the opportunity to get up as well?

"I'm actually really struggling with the word fair. Is it something that you only have to worry about [with] the big dogs, not being fair for them? ... Is it just because the squeaky door gets really loud in the Premiership teams? What's going on here?"

Barnes went on to question why NZR kept the promotion and relegation system for the Farah Palmer Cup but not the men's competition.

"All I'm looking at is logically, how is it fair that in the women's competition, the Farah Palmer Cup, they have relegation but it's apparently not fair in the men's competition? How has it come that it's not fair for the teams in the Premiership but it happens to be fair for the teams in the Championship not to be able to go up? If someone wanted to explain that to me, I would be happy to accept their call. At the moment it's just a tad spineless."

Manawatū earned promotion to the Farah Palmer Cup Premiership last weekend with a 55-12 win over Hawke's Bay in the Championship final, despite the competition also being impacted by Covid-19.

The Auckland FPC teams were also forced to withdraw from the competition, but only missed the last round of fixtures. The nature of the ladder at the time meant Auckland and Counties Manukau were in no danger of relegation from the FPC, unlike the NPC where Auckland currently sit at the bottom having played only two games.

Barnes, who has led the Bulls to five wins from five in his first season in charge, also aired his frustrations about the "flawed" Premiership-Championship division system, saying the traditional one-conference format where all 14 sides compete for the top prize was preferable not just for the teams but also for the fans.

He added that a move to the old format could have also avoided the unfair outcome of removing the chance for Championship teams to be promoted to the premier division mid-season.

"From my side of it, I think it's a flawed and ridiculous competition we have at the moment when last year Hawke's Bay were easily the best team in the country and the best they could finish was eighth. So this year at the moment, Taranaki has beaten three out of three Premiership teams. I saw Northland was supposed to be at the bottom of the Championship beat the top team Waikato. I watched Southland play Canterbury for all money should've won. Why do we have this ridiculous competition?"

He said an easy solution could be to split the competition into two conferences with everyone playing each other and having several cross-over games to complete the draw, but still allow all teams to battle it out for the one trophy.

"I understand why they've done it because they couldn't afford to do the 13 games of round-robin and semis and quarters or finals, but having them on two sides, you could control the number of games to fit the number of weeks to fit everyone else. You don't need to be a rocket scientist to think of all these things.

"But to just carry on with this competition when it's totally flawed, I can't understand it. In fact, I challenge New Zealand Rugby to come out and tell the fans in New Zealand why they love this competition rather than one where everyone can play for the title. The people who have been let down in my opinion are all the fans."

Speaking to Newstalk ZB after Barnes' comments, Lancaster said NZR believed getting rid of promotion and relegation was the "fairest thing considering the circumstances".

"It wasn't an easy decision. It was actually a really tough one. There are strong views either way whether we should retain it or cancel it, but in the end all the uncertainty that we have faced and continue to face, we felt it was the fairest thing considering the circumstances.

"It's a real shame and we really feel for them. We're faced with a bunch of imperfect options here and we had to choose one. No matter which way we went, there would've been teams that felt aggrieved or disappointed. But equally, if we had retained promotion and relegation and teams in the Premiership were further impacted by Covid then there would also be equally strong feelings as to the fairness as to a team being relegated due to the fact that it's outside of their control."

Asked if NZR considered a return to the one-conference format for at least this year, Lancaster said it was simply too difficult.

"We did look at that but it was just too difficult in the time frame and we had to make some decisions. You're talking about a new draw, venue availability, getting the Players' Association to sign off on a new competition model and working with other stakeholders. We were just dealing with this in real time and we didn't have a huge amount of time to make decisions."

Lancaster ultimately said it was good to get some certainty around the competition during the current environment, but expressed his disappointment that the Auckland teams weren't able to rejoin the competition.

"It's nice to have some certainty for the 11 unions that were still alive and in the competition. It's incredibly disappointing for the three Auckland unions to be ruled out of the competition. It is nice to get some clarity and now we just need to stay focused on keeping all 11 teams alive and able to compete in the competition."

This article was first published on nzherald.co.nz and is republished here with permission