National Provincial Competition
In 1976 a National Provincial Competition (NPC) was introduced. This established a round-robin format of play by provinces for competition points within divisions. The competition has had a variety of formats, but there have normally been three divisions involving all 26 unions. In 2011 the ITM Cup began with two competitions, a Premiership and Championship each contested by seven teams, and a 12-team Heartland Championship, in which the top four teams contested the Meads Cup and the next four the Lochore Cup. Semi-finals and finals were introduced in 1992.
By 2022 Auckland (with 16 wins) and Canterbury (14 wins) had been the most successful teams at the top level. In the early years Bay of Plenty, Counties and Manawatu won the competition, but since 1985 only Wellington and Waikato (with three wins each) had challenged the two powerhouses. Not surprisingly these are the home locations of Super Rugby teams, along with Otago (two wins). In 2014 this pattern was broken by Taranaki. Tasman won its first title in 2019 and was successful again in 2020.
For all its success, the NPC is now seen as a lesser competition by New Zealand Rugby (formerly the New Zealand Rugby Union), which gives priority to the Super Rugby teams. Super Rugby followed the acceptance of professional rugby in 1995. The next year SANZAR (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia Rugby) organised a professional competition between 12 Super teams. There were five teams in New Zealand – the Blues, based in Auckland, Chiefs in Hamilton, Hurricanes in Wellington, Crusaders in Christchurch and Highlanders in Dunedin. In 2006 an additional Australian and South African team were added, and in 2011 another Australian team, making a Super 15 with five teams in each country. In 2016 a sixth South African team and Argentinian and Japanese franchises were added. The competition reverted to 15 teams in 2018. After the 2020 season was severely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the South African franchises decided to join a European professional competition. Subsequent Super Rugby Pacific competitions have involved five Australian, five Pacific and two Pacific Island teams.
Rugby fans will never agree on the greatest player – but in Super Rugby Daniel Carter, the Crusaders’ first five-eighths, has been the highest points-scorer. Part of the competition-winning team three times, by the time he left New Zealand in 2015 he had scored 1,708 points, nearly 300 more than anyone else. Carter was also the all-time highest scorer in international rugby, with 1,598 points.
In the first 24 years of Super competition, 1996–2019, the Crusaders won 10 times (and were runner-up four times) and the Blues three times (only equalled by a South African team, the Bulls). Other New Zealand teams to win the competition were the Chiefs in 2012 and 2013, the Highlanders in 2015 and the Hurricanes in 2016.
Despite the extensive media coverage of Super Rugby, outside the main centres many rugby followers continue to show a greater allegiance to their provincial team than to their Super franchise.