As anticipation heightens for next week’s North vs South clash, the prospect of Blues players taking part in the match remains unclear amid Auckland’s resurgence of Covid-19 cases.
Alert level three restrictions are currently in place in The City of Sails, where a fresh outbreak of community transmission was announced last week.
Those restrictions forced the cancellation of last Sunday’s much-hyped Super Rugby Aotearoa finale between the Blues and Crusaders, which was set to take place in front of a sold-out Eden Park.
The rugby-related implications of Auckland’s restrictions stretch further than just that game, though.
It has brought into question the feasibility of the North vs South game, which is scheduled to take place at Eden Park next Saturday.
The level three restrictions will remain in place until August 26, just three days before the historic inter-island derby kicks-off.
Until then, very few people can leave or enter Auckland, while those in the city will remain largely confined to the four walls of their own homes.
The ramifications regarding the availability of players who were named in the North and South squads on Tuesday but are stuck in Auckland for the time being are, therefore, potentially disastrous.
The two 28-man squads are set to assemble in Wellington on Monday to prepare for the match, with New Zealand Rugby announcing a contingency plan earlier this week that will see the Kiwi capital host the fixture if Auckland is locked down beyond August 26.
Unless they are granted exemption to leave Auckland from the Ministry of Health, those teams will be devoid of the 13 Blues players who were named in the North and South squads.
New Zealand Rugby is confident of securing All Blacks tests this year despite the re-emergence of Covid-19 in the country.https://t.co/MnBvmrOoI6
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 19, 2020
That leaves the North Island in a precarious position, as 11 of their 28 players – Kurt Eklund, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Patrick Tuipulotu, Akira Ioane, Dalton Papalii, Hoskins Sotutu, Beauden Barrett, Rieko Ioane, Caleb Clarke and Mark Telea – ply their trade for the Auckland franchise.
A further two players – Alex Hodgman and Finlay Christie – have been named in the South Island team, but their involvement in the lead-up to what is effectively an All Blacks trial is just as uncertain as it is for their teammates aligned with the North.
Should there be an extension to the level three restrictions currently imposed in Auckland, then the likelihood of those 13 players taking part in the occasion could well be diminished.
That would be a significant blow to the North’s chances of victory as national bragging rights go on the line, as they would then be without their captain – Tuipulotu – and a total of seven All Blacks.
It would also amplify what already looms as a pressing issue of how the aforementioned players will be replaced in their respective squads.
For the North Island, the two hardest hit areas of their squad would come in the loose forwards and at first-five.
Through Papalii, Sotutu and Akira Ioane, the Blues make up 60 percent of the North’s back row contingent, with only Ardie Savea (Hurricanes) and Lachlan Boshier (Chiefs) not part of the Auckland team.
That alone leaves three gaps to fill in the squad, but there are a raft of contenders who were deemed unlucky not to have gained selection and would more than hold their own in the squad.
Highlanders No. 8 Marino Mikaele-Tu’u was among the form loose forwards of Super Rugby Aotearoa, and would act as a like-for-like replacement for both Ioane and Sotutu.
Capable of covering every loose forward position, two-test Chiefs star Luke Jacobson could also warrant a call-up despite having very limited playing time throughout the Super Rugby campaign due to injury.
If the selectors felt the need to add a further replacement to maintain the balance of the squad they originally picked, then they could do much worse than to select rising Hurricanes star Du’Plessis Kirifi, who was a constant presence for the Wellingtonians.
Beauden Barrett, meanwhile, was named as the North’s only first-five, with fullbacks Damian McKenzie and Mitch Hunt able to provide cover there if required.
That is exactly what might be required of the latter two should the two-time World Rugby Player of the Year be unavailable, but one would think another playmaker would be called in for Barrett.
Otere Black would have stood as the strongest candidate for such a promotion, but he too is stuck in Auckland with his Blues teammates and is nursing an injury.
That might open the door for either Kaleb Trask or Jackson Garden-Bachop, both of whom featured prominently for the Chiefs and Hurricanes, respectively, while Bryn Gatland’s clutch heroics for the Highlanders can’t have gone unnoticed.
Without Tu’inukuafe or Tu’ungafasi, the North Island would also need at least one, probably two, more props.
All Blacks front rower Atu Moli is out of contention through injury, which could pave the way for his Chiefs teammate Aidan Ross to win a call-up, provided he has overcome a calf strain that sidelined him towards the end of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
If that isn’t the case, though, youngsters Pouri Rakete-Stones and Tevita Mafileo would lead the race for last props standing in the North Island following solid campaigns with the Hurricanes.
New Zealand’s thinning stocks at lock would be hit even harder if North skipper Tuipulotu is ruled out as well, but his absence would result in good reward for one of either James Blackwell or Jack Whetton, who both played well for the Hurricanes and Highlanders.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 19, 2020
In the backline, a midfielder and two outside backs would be needed to replace exciting trio Clarke, Telea and Rieko Ioane.
There are a plethora of options to choose from across the country in that regard, with Chiefs starlets Quinn Tupaea and Alex Nankivell and Hurricanes veteran Vince Aso all capable of filling in for Ioane at centre.
Aso is also a contender for a wing spot, but would face stern competition from those such as leading Chiefs try scorer Sean Wainui and electric Hurricanes flyer Wes Goosen.
As outlandish as it may be given his severe lack of playing time, how good would it be to see Nehe Milner-Skudder come into the equation after returning to the footy field from a long injury lay-off via club rugby in Dunedin last weekend?
The predicament is far less taxing for the South Island squad considering that their two Blues members, Hodgman and Christie, are likely to play bench roles at best next weekend.
Promotion from within seems probable in terms of filling their voids on the pine, as George Bower and Mitchell Drummond loom as suitable replacements.
Still, two players could be drafted into the South side if necessary, with third-string Crusaders halfback Ere Enari and long-serving Highlanders prop Daniel Lienert-Brown the top names that spring to mind.
Possible North Island side without Blues players
1. Ayden Johnstone
2. Asafo Aumua
3. Angus Ta’avao
4. Tupou Vaa’i
5. Scott Scrafton
6. Ardie Savea
7. Lachlan Boshier
8. Marino Mikaele-Tu’u
9. Aaron Smith (c)
10. Mitch Hunt
11. Wes Goosen
12. Anton Lienert-Brown
13. Peter Umaga-Jensen
14. Sevu Reece
15. Damian McKenzie
16. Ash Dixon
17. Aidan Ross
18. Alex Fidow
19. James Blackwell
20. Luke Jacobson
21. TJ Perenara
22. Vince Aso
23. Sean Wainui
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