Super Rugby Aotearoa was a chance for players to make their mark on the local game.
With no rough travel schedules, no games at 2am New Zealand time, and little chance of lopsided fixtures, the eyes of the nation were upon them.
The rugby on display was some of the highest quality you could hope to see outside of the international stage. And while a lot of players took the next step with their individual performances during the competition, two in particular stood out from the pack – even catching the eye of All Blacks coach Ian Foster.
While they are both veteran presences, Blues lock Patrick Tuipulotu and Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith elevated their games to a whole new level during the Super Rugby Aotearoa season.
"I thought Patrick was one," Foster said when asked who stood out to him. "He's someone who took the challenge of getting better and better, and he delivered a magnificent campaign to date and he's added leadership to that. Not only leadership, I thought he had been pretty inspirational in that space.
"Aaron Smith, as someone who's been around a long, long time, playing in his 150th game, to see what the game meant for him I thought was quite inspirational with the energy he put into it."
For Tuipulotu, 2020 has seen the maturing process that started last year fully bloom. The 27-year-old, who will captain the North in the coming North v South clash, was the consistent, physical presence everyone knew he could be.
With ball in hand, on defence, at the lineout and breakdown, he led the Blues through actions this season. He was the inspirational driving force they needed.
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Smith has been the benchmark for halfbacks in New Zealand for the best part of the last decade, yet did not rest on his laurels in 2020 and brought a renewed enthusiasm and energy to his play that correlated to impressive performances on the pitch. Smith's leadership was vital for a Highlanders side many wrote off at the start of the campaign.
Now, the pair will be teammates on August 29 for the North v South clash, with Smith having played all of his provincial football for Manawatu. Tuipulotu and Smith were among the 56 players selected across the two squads, which were built from the best performers of the Super Rugby Aotearoa season.
Of the 56 selected, 24 are yet to represent New Zealand at the top level – 12 in each squad. However, with a host of injuries to certain starters such as Scott Barrett, Sam Cane and Dane Coles, the opportunity is there for some of the country's young talent to make their mark on the All Blacks coaching, management and selection staff as they begin a new World Cup cycle.
"We felt we've been able to reward some players who have really just come on the scene this year who clearly we knew about and have been waiting for them. But when they got their chance, they've done so well in terms of getting on the park and playing well.
"It's a chance to put them in a completely different environment with a new challenge and a one-off game. In some ways that's part of what test rugby is about; it's about a one-off game where you just have to go and prepare that week and deliver on the Saturday.
"We're going to learn a little bit more about that group."