In what is arguably the world’s best provincial rugby competition, 14 of New Zealand’s provinces square off over August, September and October to decide who is the Bunnings NPC Champion.

Three weeks in, and we have an indication of which teams are strong this year, as well as who’s underperforming compared to pre-season expectations.

Here’s a look at the 2022 Bunnings NPC so far:

North Harbour Makes Strong Start

Having come 12th in the ladder last season, North Harbour have made an excellent start to the Bunnings NPC 2022.

Currently, North Harbour are in third place in the Evens Pool, one point behind Canterbury, with a game in hand over leaders Auckland. With a record of two wins and a loss, North Harbour have made their best start to the season since 2018. Having narrowly lost to Auckland in round one of this year, the men from over the bridge have since put together impressive wins over Manawatu and Tasman—racking up a margin of 50 points against Manawatu, and edging last year’s runner ups Tasman 35-27 in a quality performance.

Next week will be a true test of North Harbour’s progress, as they head to Napier to take on table-topping Hawkes Bay in a Ranfurly Shield challenge. Win this, and North Harbour are genuine title contenders this year.

Otago Also Impress in Opening Games

Similar to North Harbour, Otago also began their season with a close loss, which did not bode well for last year’s 9th placed finishers.

However, since then, the men in blue have strung together three wins to sit even with Hawkes Bay on 14 points atop the Odds Pool. Going down by a point to Counties Manukau in the opening round, Otago bounced back to defeat Tasman, Hawkes Bay and Southland in consecutive games. All three of their wins have been hard fought victories, won by six or less points.

Whether this means Otago are just scraping home, or winning when it matters, will be tested next week. They head to Eden Park to play the Evens Pool leader, Auckland.

Pre-Season Favorites Wellington and Tasman Struggling

Heading into the Bunnings NPC, Canterbury, Auckland, Wellington and Tasman were the pick of the bunch with the bookies.

Canterbury and Auckland have made solid starts, sitting first and second on the ladder in the Evens Pool so far. Both Wellington and Tasman, however, have looked rather lackluster in their opening exchanges, sinking to a record of 1-2 after the first three rounds.

Despite being bolstered by former All Blacks TJ Perenara and Julian Savea in their ranks, Wellington have been far from impressive. A narrow two-point win over Bay of Plenty at home has been their only success, while they were annihilated by Canterbury 43-10 in the second round and had salt rubbed into the wound last weekend by losing to traditional cellar-dwellers Northland in front of a home crowd. Games against Taranaki and Southland loom, which are surely must-wins for Wellington if they are to threaten in 2022.

Tasman has also failed to make the most of their world-class players, with the likes of Alex Nankivell, Leicester Fainga’anuku and Ethan Blackadder not being enough to secure the Makos more than the one win either. After a seven-point victory over Southland to open the season, losses have come at the hands of Otago and North Harbour. What would typically have been a top-of-the-table clash this coming weekend against Canterbury, is instead an opportunity for Tasman to start their season afresh, and remind the competition of their star power.

Northland and Counties Manukau A Chance of Making Semi-Finals

It’s been years since either Northland or Counties Manukau made a semi-final in New Zealand’s national provincial championship. This could all change in 2022 however, as both teams are looking capable of nabbing a playoff spot in their respective pools.

Northland currently sit in fourth place, with two wins from three games. Impressively, they managed to travel to Wellington and come away with a win last weekend, having done the same thing to Taranaki in week one of the competition. Their only loss so far came by six points to last year’s winners, Waikato. The Taniwha are looking strong this year, and will be eyeing up third or four spots in the Evens Pool.

Counties Manukau on the other hand, sit in fifth place, just outside of place off contention. They have looked much improved this year, however, winning a tight match against Otago before going down to Hawkes Bay away and Waikato at home. Importantly, both of their losses have been competitive, and we’re yet to see Counties Manukau get blown away by a team, as has happened in previous seasons. To make the semi-finals, they’ll be counting on Bay of Plenty to slip up, and will either need Otago to slow down or Wellington to continue struggling.

With only a third of the season played out, there’s plenty more rugby to come over the next two months in New Zealand’s Bunnings NPC 2022.