For all the doom and gloom that COVID-19 has brought with it since it exploded into life in a matter of months, it may have provided Kiwi rugby with at least one small silver lining.
The prospect of reinstating the North Island vs South Island derby in the absence of the suspended Super Rugby season is one step closer to becoming, according to New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson.
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The former All Blacks midfielder confirmed to the New Zealand Herald last week that the inter-island clash is one of numerous options being considered by NZR, as the union looks to get some form of domestic rugby back in action.
With international travel unfeasible for the foreseeable future, the chances of Super Rugby or any kind of test matches being played over the coming months are as likely as Saracens staying in the Premiership next season.
That’s forced Robinson and his team to draft up a range of innovative alternative schedules for the 2020 campaign.
A Kiwi-only Super Rugby competition was sought after before New Zealand entered nationwide lockdown, and could still be a viable option once the country’s coronavirus alert level status is deescalated.
Elsewhere, rugby purists have called for an extended Mitre 10 Cup campaign to be bolstered by All Blacks, who should be available without any international commitments.
Both concepts hold plenty of intrigue, but the most interesting revelation Robinson made was that the revival of the North vs South clash is being seriously considered.
“Those things you’ve mentioned are on the table and there’s probably others as well. Our team is excited about some of the opportunities and we think fans could be too,” he told the Herald.
“If we’re able to play domestic rugby without any international touring then we could play for much longer than a traditional season and that opens up all sorts of opportunities for what rugby might look like in New Zealand.
“If we have a limited window to play in – from the middle of the year or whenever the time is, there’s a whole range of opportunities. Some of the options could really capture the imagination of the rugby public, players and our partners.”
If it’s the imagination of the public, their players and partners that NZR are trying to capture through their rejigged season, they could do worse than pursue the exciting route of locking in a North vs South derby series.
The sense of tradition, rivalry and tribalism that comes with rugby union’s version of State of Origin has been desperately vacant from New Zealand sport – not just rugby – for a long time.
Part of that can be attributed to the evolution of professionalism through Super Rugby, which has gone a long way to nullify the identity of Kiwi franchises – all of whom no longer solely represent their catchment regions.
Instead, the clubs have become national recruiters, to the point where a team like the Highlanders is no longer a side composed of players from just Otago and Southland, but rather the best of the rest from across the nation.
No doubt this has made New Zealand’s Super Rugby clubs far more formidable across the board, but an influx of trophies over the past decade or so has balanced out the waning interest and engagement from a fan’s perspective.
Another part of that could be attributed to the fact that the North vs South clashes have been played just twice since the fixture stopped being held annually in 1986, and only once has the encounter been staged in the professional era.
That match came under the roof of Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin in 2012 in a fundraising effort to help the financially embattled Otago Rugby Football Union, which was staring down the barrel of liquidation with debts in excess of $2 million.
The South Island won on that day, and have been holders of the inter-island crown for the past eight years as the contest has failed to take place on an annual basis since then.
That much can be considered a travesty, and you have to wonder why it’s taken another financial downfall of a much grander scale for the 123-year-old fixture to be merely considered as a possibility to fill the rugby calendar.
Even the likes of All Blacks star Aaron Smith has taken to social media proposing the idea, indicating that a lack of eagerness on the players’ part isn’t what’s holding such a potentially prosperous fixture back from coming to fruition.
North vs south games #Thoughts
— Aaron Smith (@Te_Nug) April 4, 2020
Sell-out crowds, bumper television audiences across Australasia and an intense rivalry between homegrown fans and players alike from both states are hallmarks of the flourishing success that the three-match series has been for the 13-man code since 1982.
In that timespan, NZR has floundered the chance to let the North vs South derby blossom to anywhere near that magnitude, instead focusing on the shambles that has been Super Rugby and a provincial competition that has left most its participants financially crippled.
But, for all the devastation that COVID-19 has brought with it, the pandemic has presented an opportunity to NZR for that to change in the face of economic catastrophe.
The induction of the North vs South derby back into the rugby landscape would be a breathe of fresh air and could spell a new beginning as the outlook of other competitions in the aftermath of the outbreak remains uncertain.
A three-match series where New Zealand’s best players represent their island of origin based on where they were born, where they first played club rugby and where they were educated may well be where the future of the sport lies.
If Robinson wants to make a bold play to make a mark early in his tenure as NZR chief executive and win over the union’s players, fans and corporate partners, this is the time to do so.
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