The North v South clash will go ahead this weekend, with players vying for a chance to impress the All Blacks selectors ahead of the year's first squad selection. Christopher Reive highlights the four most intriguing positional match-ups.
The playmakers' duel: Beauden Barrett v Richie Mo'unga
The people have been waiting for this match-up after the coronavirus reared its ugly head again and took it away from them in the final round of Super Rugby Aotearoa. But, better late than never.
Barrett hasn't had much of an opportunity to remind everyone what he's capable of in the No 10 jersey this year, playing just two games there for the Blues who, like the All Blacks in 2019, largely opted to deploy him at fullback. What he showed in limited time at first-five was his ability to lift the tempo of the attack and use both his running and passing game to stretch the defence.
Mo'unga on the other hand is a traditional first five-eighth. A calm presence in the middle of the park for the Crusaders, Mo'unga has a terrific read on the game, is happy to run the ball and rarely makes the wrong play. In the final year of Steve Hansen's reign, Mo'unga established himself as the incumbent No 10, forcing Barrett into the No 15 jersey.
New head coach Ian Foster has said he believes Barrett is a first five-eighth who plays fullback, and not the other way around. Out-playing Mo'unga in this game could go a long way in seeing him wear the No 10 again for the All Blacks.
The fight for fullback: Damian McKenzie v Jordie Barrett
Two different, yet effective styles clash at the back. McKenzie has long been known for his free-running, off the cuff brand of rugby, with his pace and footwork troubling the opposition.
Barrett is a more calculated practitioner at the back, and while he has the ability to cause problems with his own running ability, he tends to sweep in and out of the line and take on additional playmaking duties – a style that should be well complimented by Mo'unga at first-five.
During Super Rugby Aotearoa, McKenzie struggled to play his way into consistent form, while Barrett played a starring role for the Hurricanes. Both players can kick goals, but the power in Barrett's boot is a big tick in his favour in this match-up.
The battle of the battering rams: Akira Ioane v Shannon Frizell
With a lot of competition in the loose forwards, drawing the start in the No 6 jersey for their respective islands is a win in its own. But these two have points to prove to the selectors which makes this match-up all the more intriguing.
Ioane had seemingly been written off by the All Blacks brass until an opportunity arose at the Blues and he emerged as one of the top loose forwards in Super Rugby Aotearoa - and one who was now capable of playing for 80 minutes. A damaging ball runner, strong tackler and someone who is active in the breakdown, Ioane has caught plenty of attention this year.
Frizell is a similar player – one who will test defences and make his presence felt on the defensive side of the ball. He fell out of favour at the back end of 2019 with the emergence of Luke Jacobson, but injuries saw him reclaim his spot in the squad for the World Cup.
The war on the wings: Caleb Clarke v Will Jordan
Two of the country's most exciting young prospects will square off on the wing. With Clarke playing on the left and Jordan on the right, the two will be matched up opposite one another.
Clarke made a fast start to Super Rugby Aotearoa, displaying his speed, skill and strength to score tries in the early weeks of the competition. While he didn't add to his tally after the opening few rounds, he continued to cause problems for defences and went looking for work.
Jordan finished Super Rugby Aotearoa as the best attacking player statistically, finishing the competition with the most tries, most clean breaks, beating the most defenders and running for the most metres. While he spent most of his time at fullback for the Crusaders, he had some opportunities on the right wing and was just as effective. Like Clarke, Jordan tries to find any route he can to get involved in the game.
Whether or not these players are selected for the All Blacks this year or further down the track, this weekend's match-up should be very fan-friendly.
North: 1. Karl Tu'inukuafe 2. Asafo Aumua, 3. Ofa Tuungafasi, 4. Patrick Tuipulotu (captain), 5. Tupou Vaa'i, 6. Akira Ioane, 7. Ardie Savea, 8. Hoskins Sotutu, 9. TJ Perenara, 10. Beauden Barrett, 11. Caleb Clarke, 12. Anton Lienert-Brown, 13. Rieko Ioane, 14. Sevu Reece, 15. Damian McKenzie.
Reserves: 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: 1. Joe Moody, 2. Codie Taylor, 3. Nepo Laulala, 4. Samuel Whitelock (captain), 5. Mitchell Dunshea, 6. Shannon Frizell, 7. Tom Christie, 8. Tom Sanders, 9. Brad Weber, 10. Richie Mo'unga, 11. George Bridge, 12. Jack Goodhue, 13. Braydon Ennor, 14. Will Jordan, 15. Jordie Barrett.
Reserves: 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.