As much as the All Blacks selectors have tried to downplay the glaring hints that suggest tomorrow’s North vs South clash is nothing more than a national trial, the inter-island spirit of the occasion hasn’t been lost on two of the fixture’s key players.
While it remains one of the most eagerly anticipated matches of the rugby year, the 81st edition of this historic derby has drawn criticism from fans and pundits for its eligibility criteria that has seen players tied to one of the islands based on the first province they represented at Mitre 10 Cup level.
That’s led some to question the legitimacy of the North vs South ‘brand’, with numerous players representing the opposite island of which they originated.
Highlanders and Maori All Blacks hooker Ash Dixon is among those who fall under that category.
The 32-year-old was born and raised in Christchurch and is a product of the famed rugby nursery Christchurch Boys’ High School.
However, he was yesterday named on the bench for the North Island squad after having made his provincial debut for Hawke’s Bay in 2008.
Aside from a two-season spell with Auckland at the beginning of last decade, Dixon has remained loyal to the province that gave him his opening shot at first-class rugby, and it’s safe to assume that’s part of the reason he describes playing for the North as “special”.
“For me, I guess playing for the North is pretty special,” he told reporters on Friday.
“There’s guys that I’ve never played with before and so seeing their background and what makes them tick is quite cool for me, because, obviously, playing down South [for the Highlanders], I kind of get what they’re about and what they’re doing.
“Guys in the different parts of the region, especially around Auckland and the Chiefs, we’ve all got different identities and different things we’re about.
“I guess it’s just connecting with that and making sure I can offer something in that area, but also do what I’ve got to bring for the North.”
It’s a similar story but in opposite fashion for All Blacks hooker Codie Taylor, who hails from the North Island town of Levin, but started his professional rugby career in Christchurch with Canterbury and the Crusaders.
That in itself has instilled Taylor with plenty of pride in pulling on the white jersey of the South, which is where he and his young family still reside.
“I’ve got a good reason to play for the South. My wife’s from there, my kids were born in Christchurch and that’s what I’m trying to connect to this week,” he said.
“I’ll never forget that I’m from Levin or anything like that, but the opportunity to play in such a unique game is something that is pretty special to me, and I get to represent my family back in the South.”
For many of the up-and-coming or uncapped prospects taking part in the match, it presents an unprecedented opportunity of potential All Blacks selection, which will take place on the Sunday morning following the encounter.
That isn’t the case for Dixon, though, who made the surprising revelation that All Blacks selection isn’t on his radar, despite his uncapped status.
“No, it’s not actually,” he said when asked if a maiden All Blacks call-up has been weighing on his mind.
“I’ve just really enjoyed the week. I’m just really excited to play footy and play against some good players and play with some good players.
“That’s always the challenge. These games, playing with a lot of great talent around you, you’ve got to nail what you’ve got to do and I’m excited about that.
“That drives me and makes me want to go out there and be better.”
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