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‘An Origin three-game thing’: Why the North versus South clash should return

By Finn Morton
(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic a few years ago, rugby fans in the southern hemisphere crowded around their television screens for the 81st instalment of the North versus South derby.

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The match hadn’t been played since a one-off clash at Forsyth Barr Stadium in 2012, but was otherwise an annual fixture from 1902 to 1986 – except the event was called off for periods due to the First and Second World Wars.

Played at an empty Sky Stadium in Wellington – or Westpac Stadium as it was known back then – a Will Jordan try well after the siren had sounded handed the southerners a thrilling 38-35 win.

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As Jordan celebrated the 85th minute score with teammates Finlay Christie, Leicester Fainga’anuku, Jordie Barrett and Josh Ioane, fans were glued to their TV screens.

This is a rivalry.

This is rugby.

For a competition that is steeped in both tradition and prestige, the clash felt so new, raw and untested. But it was breathtaking, and fans wanted more.

But with normality returning through Super Rugby Pacific and a jam-packed Test season, there’s been no talk or time for another instalment of this gladiatorial contest between rugby rivals.

Meanwhile, across the ditch in Australia – certainly down the east coast at least – it’s practically impossible to escape the headlines, passion and anticipation of this year’s State of Origin series.

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“State against State, mate against mate” – every year, like clockwork, that phrase is said by Queenslanders and New South Welshman as if it were a rallying cry.

It’s that unique time of year where being either a cockroach or cane toad means something.

Australians – again, at least those on the east coast – just can’t get enough of it. This is Origin, and they love it.

While many New Zealanders also get caught up in the State of Origin hype and madness, whether or not they’re missing out on their own great rivalry is a debate in itself.

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Playmaker Mitch Hunt was involvement in the “pretty rare game” a few years ago, having been selected for representative honours with the north – despite being born in Nelson.

Hunt began his senior rugby career with Auckland in New Zealand’s provincial competition, which ended up determining his eligibility for this enthralling clash.

The Highlanders utility back described the experience as an “awesome game” – adding that it’d be “pretty cool” to see the North versus South derby return as an Origin-esque three-game series.

“I think just because of the occasion, it generates a lot of hype, a lot of talking points… it’s pretty exciting for the game to have something like that and the public love to get around it,” Hunt told RugbyPass.

“Imagine that on a yearly basis or even an Origin three-game thing would be pretty cool to be a part of for sure.

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“Even a trial type factor to see how these guys hit it our against each other.

“Obviously the game was close and it was exciting so imagine having three of them on the trot to generate that sort of interest.

“Where do you fit it in amongst all the rest? I think it’s an awesome concept and it’d be cool to see them maybe bring it back in the future.”

Having come on as a replacement in the No. 23 jumper midway through the second half, Hunt certainly showcased moments of brilliant as the he was injected into the contest.

Hunt was stopped mere metres short of the try line in the 72nd minute, but Highlanders teammate Ash Dixon made amends with the go-ahead try a few seconds later.

But, unfortunately for the utility back, the match was ultimately decided by a breathtaking Will Jordan try at the death – which Hunt was on the wrong side of.

Playing with the advantage, Josh Ioane kicked the ball across the field for Jordan, and the Crusaders flyer leaped above Hunt to reel in the match-winning score.

“We’re such good mates so it gets brought up every now and then,” Hunt added.

“I chat with him all the time so he’s got that one over me, quite literally, for a long time coming.”

But Hunt is firmly focused on the week ahead with the Highlanders.

Having just retuned home from training, Hunt and his teammates are preparing for a must-win clash against the high flying Blues on Friday night.

If the eight-placed Highlanders win, then they progress to the knockout stages of the competition. But if they don’t, then they’ll need other results to go their way.

“The positive heading into this week has probably been our last two week. With the nature of our season and where we’re sort of left ourselves, the last two weeks were really… treated as playoff games.

“We’ve sort of been in a little bit of that mindset for the last couple of weeks.

“The way our last two games finished, traditionally we may have lost tight games like that as the Landers over the last few years.

“I think we take some great confidence out of knowing that in those tight games, the last few weeks we’ve been able to finish. That’s been great, we’ve treated them like finals.

“If we win we go through, if we lose there’s still a chance but then it relies on everyone else.

“We want to take control of our own destiny and we’re going up there to win, as tough as it may be heading up to Auckland.”

That highly anticipated match between the Highlanders and Blues at Auckland’s Eden Park is set to get underway at 7.05pm NZST on Friday.

This is the final round of the regular season, so it’s a season-defining clash for both sides.

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