North versus South prediction and teams
NATIONAL TRIAL: As much as the All Blacks selectors have tried to downplay the glaring hints that suggest this 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 NPC 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.”
Tupou Vaa’i v Mitchell Dunshea
Sam Whitelock and Patrick Tuipulotu are front runners to lock the All Blacks’ scrum in the absence of Brodie Retallick during his sabbatical. The contest between Dunshea and Vaa’i has an emphasis because of the lack of locking depth. Dunshea has been within the Crusaders’ set-up long enough to have learned plenty from the likes of Whitelock and Luke Romano while also contesting for a place with Quinten Strange. But Vaa’i has been one of the success stories of the 2020 season in making his mark with the Chiefs and performing at a consistently high level. The prize they are fighting for is a potential back-up role in the Test squad.
Joe Moody v Ofa Tuungafasi
Two old protagonists here, both of them All Blacks and both having made significant career advances in the last few years. Moody has been a cornerstone of the Crusaders pack and has made every post a winner since stamping his mark when given a belated opportunity in the 2015 Rugby World Cup campaign. It has been a different road for the Blues tighthead who did his Test apprenticeship behind Owen Franks while also coping in an under-performing Blues pack. But it is no coincidence that as Tuungafasi’s confidence has grown that the Blues side has also lifted its performance level. Both players are handy around the paddock with the Aucklander especially forceful in defence.
Ardie Savea v Tom Christie
Able to claim a place on the open side of the scrum in the absence of Sam Cane, Savea can be expected to enjoy the freedom that offers his game, but it is not markedly different from the No 8 role he sealed so well for the Hurricanes in Super Rugby Aotearoa. He is the complete loose forward, able to handle each of the starting positions. Christie is the challenger. Borne of the Canterbury and Crusaders system, he has seamlessly slipped into his role in the wake of Matt Todd’s departure. His impact has not only been on all sides in Super Rugby but on the statistics sheet where he is one of the best-performing loosies in the competition. Theirs has the potential to be an epic scrap for dominance.
Beauden Barrett v Richie Mo’unga
Any list of match-ups would have to include this pair. Barrett, the experienced operator who was forced to play at fullback to fit in with other plans for the All Blacks. And who had to wait his chance to perform in that position for his new side, the Blues. Mo’unga, the preferred option in the latter stages of the Rugby World Cup, who played such an important role in the Crusaders’ success in Super Rugby Aotearoa. As with every first five-eighth so much will depend on the quality of ball presented to be able to make the greatest impact. Both will make any All Black squad, fitness permitting, but front-running status will be boosted by performance in this outing. Again, it is another match-off to savour.
Braydon Ennor v Rieko Ioane
Both players have plenty to play for in this outing. Ioane, a little off the pace on the wing missed the chance to play in key games at last year’s Rugby World Cup but came back strong for the Blues having made his desire known to play at centre. He proved dangerous in the position and contributed heavily to the achievements of the Blues backline during the Super Rugby seasons. Ennor had to spend more time than he might have liked on the wing in the Crusaders’ set-up to accommodate Ryan Crotty’s position in the mid-field. But with his departure, Ennor had the chance to show why he had been such a commanding influence at centre in lower levels of the game and he too performed with outstanding credit in the Crusaders’ Super seasons. His combination with Jack Goodhue was one of the strong points in the Crusaders’ success.
@rugby365com: South by eight points
North: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Sevu Reece, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 Caleb Clarke, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Thomas Perenara, 8 Hoskins Sotutu, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Tupou Vaa’i, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu (captain), 3 Ofa Tuungafasi, 2 Asafo Aumua, 1 Karl Tu’inukuafe.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Ayden Johnstone, 18 Angus Ta’avao, 19 Scott Scrafton, 20 Dalton Papalii, 21 Aaron Smith, 22 Peter Umaga-Jensen, 23 Mitchell Hunt.
South: 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Will Jordan, 13 Brayden Ennor, 12 Jack Goodhue, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Tom Sanders, 7 Tom Christie, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Mitchell Dunshea, 4 Sam Whitelock (captain), 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 George Bower, 18 Tyrel Lomax, 19 Manaaki Selby-Rickit, 20 Dillon Hunt, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Josh Ioane, 23 Leicester Faingaanuku.
Date: Saturday, September 5
Venue: Wellington Regional Stadium, Wellington
Kick-off: 19.10 (07.10 GMT)
Referee: Paul Williams
Assistant referees: Mike Fraser, Brendon Pickerill
By Alex McLeod, RugbyPass, with additional reporting by allblacks.com