New Zealand will play host to one of the biggest matches on the NRL calendar next season, with the annual All Stars contest to be staged in this country for the first time.
The All Stars match has been running since 2010 – with various incarnations – but has always been held across the Tasman.
That will finally change in 2023.
The Herald on Sunday understands that the encounter between the Māori All Stars and the Indigenous All Stars will be held in Rotorua next year.
Although it is a pre-season fixture, the concept has been revitalised in the last four years, since the Māori selection replaced the previous NRL All Stars team.
That has delivered much more of an edge to the contest, with the games over the last few seasons replicating the intensity of test matches.
Almost 27,000 people saw the David Kidwell-coached Māori side prevail 16-10 at Commonwealth Bank Stadium in February, with large crowds attending the matches in Townsville (2021) and Gold Coast (2020) before that.
Now it is New Zealand's turn.
It will be a hot ticket in Rotorua, probably the biggest league match in the geothermal city since the Kiwis faced Tonga there in 2009. The Kiwis have also faced Papua New Guinea (1996) and Australia (1989) in Rotorua.
The initiative is a small step in the NRL's plan to regenerate the sport here, after a vacuum over the last three years.
Last Saturday's Kiwis test was the first international men's match held here since October 2019, while the Warriors will break a 1038-day drought between home games on Sunday.
The governing body realise it will need to do a lot more – especially with the curious recent axing of the mid-season test window – but it is a welcome gesture.
It's also logical. The match should generate more interest on this side of the Tasman than in league-saturated Australia, and the Māori side will resonate in the heartland.
The 2022 edition featured top-line internationals like James Fisher-Harris, Joseph Tapine, Jordan Rapana and Kodi Nikorima while Kidwell's 2021 side had 10 current or former Kiwis, including Joseph Manu, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Benji Marshall and Briton Nikora.
It's expected that the game will be staged in New Zealand in alternate years from 2023 onwards, though that will depend on commercial arrangements.
The Rotorua International Stadium has never hosted a NRL match but has been a popular destination for Warriors pre-season games. The club first played there in 2010 (against the Roosters), with other games against the Eels (2011), Penrith (2015), Storm (2018) and Tigers (2020).
The first NRL All Stars match was held in 2010, on the Gold Coast. The Sunshine strip has hosted on four other occasions, with Brisbane (twice), Newcastle, Melbourne, Townsville and Sydney the other venues.
For the first five iterations the concept featured a composite Indigenous team against the best of the rest.
In 2016 and 2017 the format shifted to a World All Stars side – with five nations represented – before the current concept, in place since 2019.
A parallel Women's All Stars match has featured since 2011, with the Māori women victorious in 2019 and 2021.