New Zealand and the rest of the rugby world wanted an exciting game of rugby, and the North and South Islands delivered it.
The highly-anticipated fixture lived up to every lofty expectation placed on it, with New Zealand’s best showing exquisite skill across the board to show the three-week break since the end of Super Rugby Aotearoa hasn’t diminished their frenetic pace of which they’re able to play the game.
As a result, the South chalked up a 38-35 victory over their Northern neighbours, but it took a very late fightback and a try long past the full-time siren to clinch the win.
Not only did the uncapped youngster’s scintillating burst showed he has lost none of his electric touch that made him so valuable in Super Rugby Aotearoa, it also laid the platform for an early try that set the tone for the attacking edge the game was expected to have.
It wasn’t an advantage that lasted for very long, with South prop Nepo Laualala showing great awareness to exploit a gap in the defensive line close to the ruck and snatch a close range try that any halfback would be proud of.
Going tit-for-tat in the attacking stakes, the North responded by producing one of the tries of the match, with Clarke, Ioane and TJ Perenara flinging offloads to one another to send Damian McKenzie in untouched from about 20 metres out.
Taking a more robust approach to crossing the line, the South used brute force to smash their way to their second try, using the massive frame of Jordie Barrett as a battering ram to smash through Sevu Reece and Perenara and slam the ball down in the corner.
An earlier penalty by the 23-year-old handed the South a three-point buffer at the break, but the North flexed their depth early on in the second stanza.
The fifth lead change of the night came just before the hour mark when Clarke, who hadn’t put a foot wrong all match, tried to keep the loose ball in play by swatting in-field as it bobbled towards the sideline.
That only allowed prolific try scorer Will Jordan – who, in contrast to Clarke, had been particularly quiet up until this point – to scoop it up and sprint 50-odd metres away for yet another try in 2020.
A pair of tries over the next 10 minutes followed, one for the South via reserve prop Tyrel Lomax, and one to the North through Ioane, whose pace and power were on full display in a performance that could almost be worthy of man-of-the-match honours.
However, it was a 72nd minute try to reserve North hooker Ash Dixon that looked to be the difference, with his borrowing run to the tryline under the posts piling a heap of pressure on their Southern counterparts.
That allowed the Crusaders flyer to cross over in the 85th minute, much to the delight of the South contingent, whose joy was audible throughout the empty Sky Stadium.
Their victory did come at a cost, however, as one-test centre Braydon Ennor collapsed in a heap after making a tackle on Rieko Ioane early on in the first half.
Clutching at his knee and having to be helped off the park after just 13 minutes of action must be a concerning sight for All Blacks coach Ian Foster.
He might have to rub Ennor’s name off his 35-man squad list before it’s announced on Sunday morning should the injury be as serious as it first looked.
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