In everything but name alone, the North v South clash this weekend is an All Blacks trial, despite what the coaches say.
The selection of TJ Peranara as a starter over Aaron Smith – perhaps the best player in the country so far this year – in the North team is as much an indicator as any that beyond the artifice of island rivalries, the highly-anticipated game on Saturday is a chance for All Blacks selectors to get invaluable information on their squad, something that comes at a premium during a pandemic.
It turns out the match will also be something of an All Blacks trial for Sky TV as it contends with the challenges of broadcasting a big game of rugby in the social distancing era.
"Definitely for Sky it'll be our biggest challenge to date. A lot of planning has gone in," says Marcus Kennedy, Sky's live sport executive producer.
"An event like this is an opportunity for us to try things. And then what's successful, we can implement on future big matches."
Kennedy's comments may as well have come from the mouth of All Blacks coach Ian Foster. But ultimately, this is NZ Rugby and Sky's chance to showcase the sport in its most popular form – through screens – during a time when a heck of a lot of Kiwis will be watching.
With the country at alert Level 2 due to the resurgence of Covid-19 in the community, this weekend's matchup at Sky Stadium in Wellington will be played without fans. It presents Sky with its first chance to properly debut its "virtual crowd effects" – having first tested it in the final game of this year's Super Rugby Aotearoa season, a meaningless clash between the Highlanders and the Hurricanes after the Crusaders had already clinched the title.
"We've got plans to use our virtual crowd effects set-up," says Kennedy. "It's something that we tested successfully for the Highlanders v Hurricanes match in the final round of Super. So that worked quite well for us. It was the first time we've done anything like that."
Canned crowd noise has been controversial in the sporting world. Sports broadcasters that have chosen to go without – like the Bundesliga in Germany – have only further intensified the eerie, almost dystopian, atmosphere surrounding pandemic sport. Meanwhile, coverage of the NRL and the Premier League has also been criticised for its sometimes cartoonish implementation of crowd effects.
For Sky, a company synonymous with televised rugby in New Zealand, the decision to include virtual sound effects is about creating the best viewing experience for fans – even if it requires some suspension of disbelief.
"We had planned to do it before sports came back after our first wave of Covid, but we were lucky to get fans in [stadiums] right away. So we never had to do it.
"So what we have done in that time is we've looked around the world and seen what has been successful and taken bits from each coverage we've seen and sort of tailored it to our market."
Kennedy says the sounds we'll be hearing on our screens on Saturday are from recordings of old All Blacks tests.
"We've got files saved from previous All Blacks matches. So our audio engineer at Sky basically follows the game in real time and he triggers various crowd effects.
"For example, if there's a big moment, big hits, a try, an intercept, they follow it in real time to replicate what sounds the crowd would make if they were there. It's quite complex to set up. But the first time we did have a crack at it we were pretty stoked."
The biggest challenge for Sky, however, has been the technical minutiae involved around broadcasting live sport with Covid restrictions.
Professional sport is deemed a workplace, so the 100-person social gathering limit in Wellington isn't an issue for Sky and New Zealand Rugby. But social distancing and other health measures still apply, which creates a bunch of headaches.
"Lots of logistical challenges," Kennedy says. "There are fewer flights on so less opportunities to get crew in and out. So that's a big challenge for our team that sorts that.
"Another one is the distancing issues we'll have in the [production] truck. We can house less people than we would normally have. So the people in the truck have got to probably work twice as hard to achieve the [same] outcomes."
A normal All Blacks test would usually require around 80 Sky crew members at the ground, with up to 20 more at the headquarters. This weekend, there will only be 56 at the stadium, including camera operators, engineers and on-screen talent.
"[We're] lucky that we haven't been in this situation previously besides that Highlanders match," says Kennedy. "So we've had the ability to see other broadcasters and how they approach it ... [it] just means more planning and preparation time.
"We've got [screen] dividers; everyone's in masks; there are less people in the trucks. For interviews you will see on the grounds, you know at halftime and fulltime, instead of our talent – someone like Mils Muliaina – interviewing someone, he's got to stand back and all the mics have to be on static poles.
"All our equipment needs to be sanitised. So after the pre-match interviews, all our equipment gets wiped down. Same again after halftime. It just makes it a lot trickier."
When it comes to future matches down the line like All Blacks tests, expect more innovations like Sky's 'Player Cam' as the TV company works hard to produce the best viewing experience it can considering the circumstances, especially with fans not able to be there in person.
"We were hoping to launch the Sky Sport 'Rover Cam', which is basically a small camera that is attached to a little remote control car.
"That was something we had hoped to launch for this event but we're still awaiting a few bits and bobs to arrive from overseas to make the kit work. It's just made us think outside the box a little on how we can improve the fan enjoyment of the game but not putting humans too close to the action. So what better than a little remote control car.
"It's disappointing to hold an event without fans but I guess that's the time we're in. So we'll just try and produce coverage that makes them feel closer to the event."
North v South kicks off at 7.10pm on Saturday night. Live coverage on nzherald.co.nz, Newstalk ZB and Sky Sport.