While a resurgence of COVID-19 has cast doubt on the feasibility of the highly-anticipated North vs South clash taking place at Eden Park next Saturday, there remains hope that the fixture will go ahed as planned.
Although Auckland will remain in level three lockdown until at least three days before the match is scheduled to take place, cash-strapped New Zealand Rugby is adamant the match will be played out, albeit potentially from a different venue.
Wellington looms as the next most likely city to host the event in front of a live crowd, which would provide the national union with some much-needed influx of cash.
With revenue at the forefront of NZR’s mind, hopes of the historic inter-island derby taking place are high, which has led RugbyPass scribes Tom Vinicombe and Alex McLeod to lay-out the biggest selection dilemmas facing each side.
North Island – Tom Vinicombe
Caleb Clarke vs TJ Faiane
Now, these two players may not play in the same position – but they’re probably still going head-to-head for spots in the starting line-up, depending on the structure of the backline.
Rieko Ioane has found a new lease of life in 2020 after stumbling a little bit last year. He’s been excellent in the Blues midfield, especially on attack, but the selector may still have some reservations about his defence. With Jack Goodhue and Braydon Ennor likely lining up in the South Island centres, the selectors may be more comfortable running with TJ Faiane in the midfield.
Faiane has been the glue for a dynamic Blues backline and the Aucklanders looked decidedly less organised on both attack and defence when Faiane wasn’t on the park. If Faiane plays in the midfield then Ioane would slot in on the left wing.
Alternatively, Caleb Clarke has been immense for the Blues since announcing himself against the Hurricanes in the opening game of Super Rugby Aotearoa. The son of Eroni Clarke has plenty of bulk but sacrifices nothing in speed and will inevitably find himself wearing black in the future.
Gerard Cowley-Tuioti vs Josh Goodhue
While Patrick Tuipulotu is an easy pick for one locking option and has had an incredible Super Rugby Aotearoa season, the other berth could well come down to a straight shoot-out between the two men that partnered Tuipulotu in the Blues second row.
Josh Goodhue started the Aotearoa season strongly and complemented Tuipulotu’s physicality well. Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, however, seemed to jump ahead of Goodhue in the pecking order by season’s end after returning from a shoulder injury and hooker James Parsons fiercely advocated that Coweley-Tuioti possesses all the characteristics that the national selectors will be looking for.
“I just think defensively, his ability to carry, and I think he’s great in the set piece, and will only get better in an All Black environment,” Parsons said on the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
“Talk about dominant tackle stats, work rate, ability in the air, I think he has to be right in the discussion.”
Other options include the Hurricanes’ James Blackwell and Scott Scrafton, who were industrious throughout the season but not necessarily as effective around the park as their Blues counterparts.
The loose forwards
Maybe this is cheating a little bit, but there are just so many possible permutations in the loose forwards that it just makes sense to lump them all in one category.
First of all, is Sam Cane fit and able to play? If yes, then it’s difficult to imagine the new All Blacks captain being left out of the mix. The same can be said for Ardie Savea, who’s been playing at No. 8 all season – but then what happens to the likes of the Blues’ Hoskins Sotutu and the Highlanders’ Marino Mikaele-Tu’u?
While Luke Jacobson spent most of Super Rugby Aotearoa on the sidelines, he made a promising return in the Chiefs’ final game against the Hurricanes and was drafted into the All Blacks World Cup squad last year despite having limited minutes throughout the season.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 16, 2020
Dalton Papalii has suggested he’s focussed solely on playing on the openside flank but perhaps the selectors could use him on the blindside flank, given the presence of Cane and Savea? It’s a similar story for Lachlan Boshier.
There’s also Tom Robinson to factor in, who has a massive engine and was a big factor in the Blues’ mid-season resurgence but may still be unavailable following knee surgery earlier in the season.
All in all, there’s a trove of options available to play in the North Island’s loose forwards and there will be some very unlucky men who are deserving of selection but miss out.
South Island – Alex McLeod
Dillon Hunt vs Tom Christie
For all the hype that has surrounded the likes of Dalton Papalii and Lachlan Boshier as the next big thing at No. 7, Highlanders openside Dillon Hunt sure has flown under the radar.
The one-cap All Black filled the boots of injured captain James Lentjes admirably throughout Super Rugby Aotearoa, finishing the competition as the league leader in tackles made and turnovers won.
Eligible for the South Island after making his provincial debut for Otago in 2015, Hunt proved to have one of the biggest tickers in New Zealand over the past two months, and could yet be an outside shot at adding to his solitary test appearance.
His place in the South Island starting side, though, will be tested by rookie Crusaders flanker Tom Christie.
A constant presence in Scott Robertson’s all-conquering team, the 22-year-old Cantabrian had an outstanding debut campaign at Super Rugby level.
#SuperRugbyAotearoa came to a close on Saturday when the Highlanders and Hurricanes played out an entertaining clash in Dunedin.
Here are the five best players from that match.https://t.co/Lnbsgcat6n
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 16, 2020
Renowned for his workaholic approach to the game, the former New Zealand U20 captain has a similar playing style to Hunt, as reflected in his defensive output.
That makes it a tough pick for South Island coaches Greg Feek and Brad Mooar, but with no other loose forwards demanding selection – except for Shannon Frizell – perhaps both Hunt and Christie could be squeezed in as dual opensides?
Nepo Laulala vs Tyrel Lomax
On paper, this seems like an easy selection given Nepo Laulala has established himself as New Zealand’s premier tighthead prop in recent years.
The 26-test Chiefs star, who started out with Canterbury, usurped Owen Franks to occupy the All Blacks’ No. 3 jersey at last year’s World Cup, but his status as New Zealand’s top tighthead has come under threat in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Ofa Tu’ungafasi’s irresistible form at the Blues has likely propelled him past Laulala in the national pecking order, meaning the latter will have plenty to play for come the North vs South encounter.
His place in the South’s starting lineup is no certainty, however, with Hurricanes prop Tyrel Lomax a strong contender to make the cut.
The former Melbourne Rebels and Australia U20 front rower made his Mitre 10 Cup debut for Tasman after crossing the ditch three years ago, making his name as a powerful scrummager and damaging ball-runner with the Highlanders.
Since moving to the capital this year, the one-cap All Black has anchored the Hurricanes’ scrum well and has done his international aspirations little harm at Sky Stadium.
With Laulala holding considerably more experience in the test arena, though, it’s no forgone conclusion as to who will join a strong front row that will, barring injury, also consist of Crusaders pair Joe Moody and Codie Taylor.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 15, 2020
Josh McKay vs Leicester Fainga’anuku vs Jona Nareki
In George Bridge, Will Jordan and Jordie Barrett, the make-up of the South’s starting back three seems relatively straight forward as they have three test-level operators in their ranks.
Who supports them on the bench, however, isn’t so clear.
With Barrett and probable first-five picks Richie Mo’unga and Josh Ioane able to cover likely starting midfielders Jack Goodhue and Braydon Ennor should either leave the field, the No. 23 jersey should be occupied by an outside back.
Three-test All Blacks utility David Havili would have been the leading candidate to fill that role were it not for a broken thumb.
His absence opens up an opportunity for one of the South Island’s youngsters to stake their claim in what is effectively an All Blacks trial, and Mooar and Feek have three strong contenders that could fit the bill.
Do the selectors opt to go with the electrifying pace of Highlanders speedster Josh McKay, who is believed to be one of the quickest players in the country across 10 metres?
Or do they take barnstorming Crusaders flyer Leicester Fainga’anuku, whose power and ball-carrying prowess is like that of a young Julian Savea?
What about breakout Highlanders star Jona Nareki, who dominated the franchise’s left wing spot this year and was singled out by head coach Aaron Mauger on Saturday as one of club’s leading lights this season?
It’s hard to go wrong with any of those options, but who exactly the decide on will be of much intrigue.
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