As the return of rugby in New Zealand nears, excitement levels both domestically and abroad are building for the kick-off of next week’s Super Rugby Aotearoa.

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It’s not just that competition – which will feature the presence of returning All Blacks Dan Carter and Nehe Milner-Skudder – that fans are eager for, though.

The countdown to Super Rugby Aotearoa means New Zealand Rugby is also closing in on the proposed and widely-discussed North v South clash.

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Having been played on an almost annual basis over the course of 80 matches between 1897 and 1986, the inter-island match is set to be staged for just the third time since 1995 in the absence of a regular playing schedule due to the coronavirus pandemic.

NZR chief executive Mark Robinson has been publicly open about progressing discussions on how and when the event can be held, and mention of its return has created a buzz among rugby fans across the country.

“Now that we have this timeline locked in around Super Rugby, we can probably firm up around those particular fixtures, and I know the players are pretty excited around particularly the North v South game,” he told Newshub last month.

“There has been some talk around the qualification on what those two teams may look like and we will continue to work through those discussions.”

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Many see great potential in this contest to install a nationwide rivalry in Kiwi footy that has rarely been seen since the game went professional.

The entire concept of  New Zealand’s best players duking it out on the field so one island can hold bragging rights over the other mirrors the incentive behind Australian rugby league’s State of Origin between New South Wales and Queensland.

Both those states – from the playing, coaching and corporate ranks right through down to the each set of devoted fans – have deep-rooted despise for one another, and you only need to look at the title of the three-match series to understand why.

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The players that pull on the respective blue and maroon jerseys do so to represent where they hail from.

Whether they were born in, raised in, played their junior rugby league in, or have strong family ties to New South Wales or Queensland, the 13 players on each team are there carrying the weight of expectation from those in each state who helped them reach the pinnacles of their career.

By virtue of representing a state that they have such a sense of belonging to, others within the region who have grown up or lived in the same or nearby areas to those players become attached to the side as they too feel represented.

When both sets of teams feel that way, you can expect there to be vitriol when they meet, which makes for top-tier sporting entertainment.

State of Origin, therefore, has become one of the most hyped and best-followed sporting events in this corner of the globe, with stadiums across Australia sold out without fail and international television audiences climbing well into the millions.

If NZR’s North v South concept is supposed to mirror that of State of Origin, it’s easy to see why fans across the other side of the Tasman Sea want to see that match so badly.

But if it’s to evoke that same sense of passion and affinity that rugby league’s most heralded series can boast, the right eligibility criteria has to be in place to create a true reflection of where both sets of players come from.

In the 99 years that the North v South match regularly took place before it was ground to a halt, the selection criteria was simply based on what province players represented.

Besides the fact that the North Island has ten Mitre 10 Cup provinces to work with against the South Island’s four, that system doesn’t accurately portray where all players originate from.

For example, Canterbury’s Sam Whitelock was born and raised in the farmlands of Manawatu, while Brodie Retallick came through the ranks in Christchurch before taking an offer to move up north to Hawke’s Bay.

However, based on that old-school logic, Whitelock would don the white of the South Island and Retallick would be opposing him in the black of a North Island jersey.

Those are just two of numerous instances of players inevitably representing who they are signed with rather than where they come from, leading to prominent rugby figures to voice their opinions on how teams should be picked.

All Blacks, Highlanders and Manawatu halfback Aaron Smith was among those to offer a suggestion, recommending the highly popular idea of picking players based on where they played their 1st XV rugby in high school.

Others have followed suit, with one of the most commonly suggested variations of the rule being which island players were born on.

Ex-All Blacks wing turned Hurricanes assistant coach Cory Jane offered a creative spin, saying that he would like to see the fans vote for the players on each side in similar fashion to the NBA All-Star game.

While the 23-man match day squads would be selected by the fans, Jane said that coaches would maintain the right to select who would make the starting lineup for the occasion.

It’s the comments of newly-instated All Blacks skipper Sam Cane, though, that have appeared to resonate within NZR ranks.

“I was thinking one or two options,” the 28-year-old told The Breakdown last month.

“One could be where you played your first fifteen rugby or where you played your first game of senior (club) footy.”

That latter option seems to have gained some traction, with whispers on Twitter indicating NZR have asked players to provide them with who they first played senior club rugby for.

Credit has to be given to NZR’s attempt to inject some relevancy into the club rugby scene, which has been struggling to stay afloat in certain areas of the country for quite some time now.

However, just like how using what province a player is signed with isn’t a true reflection of where they originate from, the same can be said for basing North v South selection based on their first senior club.

NZME‘s Sam Casey highlighted how South Island born-and-raised Damian McKenzie would be lost to the North Island under such circumstances, and the same would happen with fellow South Islanders Anton Lienert-Brown and Atu Moli.

The South Island’s loss of the trio would be nullified, though, considering the sheer influx of playing talent that would head their way under such criteria.

McKenzie’s exit would be suitably filled by Jordie Barrett, who – despite being born, raised, educated and now signed with Taranaki – would turn out for the South after playing for Lincoln University in the Canterbury competition on a rugby scholarship straight out of school.

Barrett would be joined by elder brother Scott, who also linked up with Lincoln immediately after leaving Francis Douglas Memorial College in New Plymouth.

He would partner up in the second row with Whitelock, who is another Lincoln University product, as is North Island born-and-bred midfielder Jack Goodhue.

The Whangarei-born, Auckland-educated All Blacks star could form an all-Crusaders midfield with Braydon Ennor, who is an Aucklander at heart, but would only be South eligible after turning out for the University club in Christchurch.

The list goes on: Codie Taylor, Nepo Laulala, George Bridge, Brad Weber, Tyrel Lomax, Gareth Evans, Dillon Hunt and Josh Ioane are other All Blacks with strong, definitive ties to the North who would ultimately have to play for the South if senior club rugby was the determining selection factor.

There’s no doubt that a South Island team with all these players would make them a far competitive side than if selection was just left to where a player was born or schooled.

It’s those two factors, though, that would give a North v South encounter the authenticity to emulate the passion, tribalism and fanfare that is seen in State of Origin.

Without that authenticity, that connection to the fans – who want to see players represent the islands that they share in calling home – is diminished, which would go against the entire point of reinstalling the match in the first place.

The competitiveness of both sides to make an entertaining spectacle is important, there’s no question about that.

But, so is ensuring that both islands have the right players on the park based on where they’re actually from, not where they first played the moment they left their regions of origin after school.

It’s up to NZR to determine which aspect of the North v South concept is regarded the most important.

Potential 30-man North v South squads based on first senior club:

North Island

Hookers: Asafo Aumua (Avalon, Wellington), Dane Coles (Marist St Pats, Wellington), Nathan Harris (Te Puke Sports, Bay of Plenty)

Props: Atu Moli (University, Waikato), Aidan Ross (Te Puke Sports, Bay of Plenty), Angus Ta’avao (Eden, Auckland), Karl Tu’inukuafe (Takapuna, North Harbour), Ofa Tu’ungafasi (Grammar TEC, Auckland)

Locks: Brodie Retallick (Central, Hawke’s Bay), Tom Robinson (Kerikeri, Northland), Patrick Tuipulotu (Ponsonby, Auckland)

Loose Forwards: Sam Cane (Tauranga, Bay of Plenty), Vaea Fifita (Wellington, Wellington), Luke Jacobson (Hautapu, Waikato), Dalton Papalii (Pakuranga United, Auckland), Ardie Savea (Oriental-Rongotai, Wellington), Hoskins Sotutu (Marist, Auckland)

Halfbacks: TJ Perenara (Northern United, Wellington), Aaron Smith (Fielding Yellows, Manawatu), Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi (New Plymouth Old Boys, Taranaki)

First-Fives: Beauden Barrett (Coastal, Taranaki), Otere Black (College Old Boys, Manawatu), Aaron Cruden (College Old Boys, Manawatu)

Midfielders: Vince Aso (Ponsonby, Auckland), Ngani Laumape (Kia Toa, Manawatu), Anton Lienert-Brown (University, Waikato)

Outside Backs: Rieko Ioane (Ponsonby, Auckland), Damian McKenzie (University, Waikato), Nehe Milner-Skudder (Varsity, Manwatu), Sevu Reece (Melville, Waikato)

South Island

Hookers: Liam Coltman (Alhambra-Union, Otago), Ricky Riccitelli (Southern, Otago), Codie Taylor (Sydenham, Canterbury)

Props: Nepo Laulala (Sydenham, Canterbury), Daniel Lienert-Brown (High School Old Boys, Canterbury), Tyrel Lomax (Stoke, Tasman), Joe Moody (Lincoln University, Canterbury), Siate Tokolahi (Sydenham, Canterbury)

Locks: Scott Barrett (Lincoln University, Canterbury), Pari Pari Parkinson (Stoke, Tasman), Quinten Strange (Nelson, Tasman), Sam Whitelock (Lincoln University, Canterbury)

Loose Forwards: Tom Christie (Christchurch, Canterbury), Gareth Evans (Dunedin, Otago), Shannon Frizell (Marist, Tasman), Cullen Grace (Lincoln University, Canterbury), Dillon Hunt (University, Otago)

Halfbacks: Mitchell Drummond (High School Old Boys, Canterbury), Ere Enari (Lincoln University, Canterbury), Brad Weber (Dunedin, Otago)

First-Fives: Dan Carter (Southbridge, Canterbury), Josh Ioane (Southern, Otago), Richie Mo’unga (Linwood, Canterbury)

Midfielders: Braydon Ennor (University, Canterbury), Jack Goodhue (Lincoln University, Canterbury), Alex Nankivell (Stoke, Tasman)

Outside Backs: Jordie Barrett (Lincoln University, Canterbury), George Bridge (High School Old Boys, Canterbury), David Havili (Nelson, Tasman), Will Jordan (Christchurch, Canterbury)

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