After a hotly contested opening two weeks of the Rugby Championship that saw each team pick up a win and a loss, international rugby takes a break this weekend.

However, there’s still plenty of first-class action to be watched, as New Zealand’s provincial competition heads into its third week of the round-robin this weekend. In a nine-week regular season, competition is already starting to heat up with teams jostling for playoff spots in October.

We look ahead to a few of the key games to be seen this coming weekend in the Bunnings NPC.

Counties Manukau vs. Waikato

The weekend’s action kicks off with what should be a cracking match in Pukekohe, between home side Counties Manukau, and neighbors Waikato.

Having not made the playoffs since 2016, Counties Manukau are looking a much improved outfit this year. The addition of Wallabies veteran prop Sekope Kepu has strengthened what has been at times an ill-disciplined tight five, while Sevens star Etene Nanai-Seturo brings some much needed spark to the Counties backline that has been missing the past few seasons. So far this season, Counties Manukau have claimed a last gasp win over Otago 23-22 in the opening round, and fallen one point short against Hawkes Bay on the road last week, 33-32.

Welcoming back All Blacks Hoskin Sotutu and Nepo Laulala will further boost the Counties Manukau pack, who will be hoping to make it two from two at home this year, in front of what will no doubt be a rowdy Friday night crowd.

Waikato, on the other hand, have started their season off with a draw and a win. Neither have been particularly convincing however, as the defending champs struggled to put Hawkes Bay away in the first round, missing two penalties and two drop goals at the death. Last week’s match against Northland was also underwhelming, as Waikato only managed a six point win over a side they put 71 points on in 2018.

With plenty of Waikato fans making the trip up the Expressway to cheer their team on, this should be a great start to the weekend’s rugby.

North Harbour vs. Tasman

The men from over the bridge seem to play their best rugby in waves, and all signs are pointing towards this being North Harbour’s season in 2022.

With their last hot vein of form coming in 2016-2017, North Harbour have started their season in emphatic nature—hanging in with an excellent Auckland side until the last minute, before trouncing Manawatu by 50 points last week. With the back three of Shaun Stevenson, Tevita Li and Mark Telea firing under the direction of Bryn Gatland, North Harbour have a vicious backline that can score from anywhere on the field. North Harbour will be eager to reassert themselves on the Bunnings NPC and make a return to playoff contention for the first time in five years.

Tasman, on the other hand, have been New Zealand’s form provincial team the last five years. However, they are already in danger of falling behind the pace, dropping their latest game to Otago, and only narrowly defeating perennial wooden spooners Southland the week before. Should Tasman lose again this weekend to North Harbour, they’ll face up against 14-time champions Canterbury needing a win to stay in contention—not a spot any side wants to find themselves in. With two dropped All Blacks in Tasman’s backline, they’ll also be looking to spread the ball wide and score from deep.

If the weather holds up, Saturday night’s game between North Harbour and Tasman could well be a high scoring thriller courtesy of two strong backlines that are eager to score.

Southland vs. Otago

The beauty of New Zealand provincial rugby, is there are some games that teams just raise their level for, regardless of how the season is going.

Southland vs. Otago is one such match, where the rivals from the deep south are sure to slug it out in a tight contest packed with history. Last year Otago got the better of little brother Southland by seven points in the opening round, while 2020 saw Southland record an historic 32-15 score line, despite not qualifying for the playoffs.

This season, both sides are looking good.

Southland are yet to pick up a win, however both of their losses have been against quality opposition, with tight margins. Round one saw a 27-20 loss against last year’s runner ups Tasman, while round two was a one point loss to 2022 favorites Auckland. Southland will be counting on a big shift from veterans Scott Gregory and Marty Banks to get them across the line for the first time this season.

Otago have fared better this season, falling by one point to Counties Manukau in their opener, before stringing together impressive wins over Tasman and Hawkes Bay. Former All Black Josh Ioane is in fine form, as is Villiami Koroi on the wing. However, with rain forecast for Sunday’s match between Southland and Otago in Invercargill, there’s every chance this game will devolve into an old-fashioned arm wrestle in the mud.

Tune in to catch these games, and plenty more, in the Bunnings NPC over the weekend.