I’ve been seriously missing Super Rugby Aotearoa these past few weeks, so on the eve of the All Blacks selection announcement, this match between the North Island and South Island – the first since a fundraiser in 2012 – was something I was looking forward to… and it didn’t really disappoint!

The North Island couldn’t have got a much better start to the match, as Reiko Ioane go on the end of a Beauden Barrett grubber kick to score the opening try after just 2 and a half minutes, with Damian McKenzie kicking the extras. It didn’t take long for the South Island to find an answer though, as a driving maul got them to the North Island try line and Nepo Laulala took the ball the final few inches, Jordie Barrett hitting the conversion and a penalty soon after to go ahead. Next came arguably the try of the match as the North Island attacked down the blind side 15m channel with some beautiful interplay from Reiko Ioane, Caleb Clarke, TJ Perenara and Damian McKenzie seeing the Chiefs fullback put North Island back ahead with the try and successful conversion. Jordie Barrett missed a penalty, but made amends just after the half hour mark, powering over int he corner after a slick pass out of the ruck from Codie Taylor, before hitting the conversion for a halftime lead of 14-17.

The North Island struck first again in the second half as replacement scrum half Aaron Smith followed up with an inside support line after the team made a break down the right through Damian McKenzie and Hoskins Sotutu, McKenzie converting again. 10 minutes later and North Island were on the attack again, but a pass from McKenzie went astray and while Caleb Clarke managed to keep the ball in play, he was unable to collect and South Island winger Will Jordan swooped in to steal the ball and take it to the house. while the South Island scored again just minutes later as Richie Mo’unga hit Tyrel Lomax on a perfect line with a beautiful flat pass, Barrett kicking both conversions to extend the lead. North Island refused to give up and narrowed the lead when Reiko Ioane slipped through the challenges of Shannon Frizell and Leicester Fainga’anuku to score under the posts, with McKenzie cutting the lead to 3 points. Then came the controversial moment on 71 minutes as Ash Dixon took an hard line off Aaron Smith to go under the posts. Referee Paul Williams awarded the try without consulting the TMO and the conversion was taken quickly, before replays could show that Dixon had been held up over the line. As the clock ticked past the 80 minutes, it looked like that decision may prove costly, but a series of penalties gave the South Island one more chance from a 5m lineout. With a penalty advantage given at the resultant maul, and with the North Island defence extremely narrow, replacement fly half Josh Ioane went for the cross-kick and Will Jordan rose above Mitch Hunt to take the ball above his head and score the winning try, Barrett adding the extras to confirm a 35-38 victory.

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Stand-out performers

While a couple of players may not have had the impact they would have hoped, there was no player in either 23 who came away from the match with a diminished reputation. Some definitely improved on theirs, though.

Jordie Barrett was arguably one of the best men on the pitch, frequently showing his skills in both attack and defence while going near-perfect off the tee. Will Jordan was quiet in the first half but grew into the game and picked his moments to have maximum impact with 2 crucial tries. To me, they are the top 2 options at fullback right now, and I would expect Jordie Barrett to get the All Blacks 15 shirt if Ian Foster picks on form as he creates the 10/15 playmaker axis, while Jordan will certainly be putting his hand up for a spot on the wing. Caleb Clarke put in a big performance that may be the only thing that stops Jordan taking one of the starting wing spots, with Foster unlikely to want 2 uncapped wingers along with a new fullback.

One person who won’t be in contention for a wing spot is Reiko Ioane, as he has shown that the experiment of moving him inside to outside centre has been a success. While we already knew of Ioane’s pace, this move has accentuated his defensive ability and his strength, while his slick handling skills in the 13 channel just make the team even more dangerous. Sticking with the Blues, Hoskins Sotutu was the star of Super Rugby Aotearoa until his injury, but looked immediately back to his best in this game with turnovers and some great attacking play.

The final mention has to go to Tom Christie. Openside flanker is a position where the All Blacks are never short of options, while there is a legacy to uphold after the reign of Richie McCaw. Tom Christie definitely wouldn’t have been the first name on people’s lips when discussing Ian Foster’s options there, but he had a fantastic season with the Crusaders and played a starring role in this game. As captain of the national team, if Sam Cane is fit then Christie’s best chance is probably a place on the bench, but don’t be surprised to see him actively fighting for the 7 shirt in the coming years.

Strength in depth

If nothing else, this match and the subsequent All Blacks squad announcement just highlighted the strength in depth available to New Zealand.

While all 8 back rowers to play in this match put in strong performances, Sam Cane was always going to make the All Blacks squad if fit, while Cullen Grace can be considered somewhat of a shock inclusion, having missed much of Super Rugby Aotearoa through injury. Beyond that, though, are players like Du’Plessis Kirifi, Luke Jacobsen and Lachlan Boshier who all missed out on both the All Blacks and this match!

In the halfbacks, it was a shame that Finlay Christie did not get more of a chance to show his quality in the match and I can’t help feel that on form he was very unlucky to miss out on international selection (cough… snap him up, Scotland… cough!). Finally, that the match 23s suggest Otere Black my be 6ᵗʰ choice at stand-off is another crazy sign of their depth, especially when you consider some of the other players who have retired from international rugby or are ineligible due to playing outside of New Zealand!

If New Zealand are to struggle at all int he coming seasons, it won’t be due to a lack of depth in the squad.

Wasted wonder

I’ve been on record as saying that I consider Richie Mo’unga to be the best fly half in the world at this moment in time. Unfortunately, following this match, I feel that his potential will not be reached while Ian Foster is in charge of the All Blacks.

Under Steve Hansen, Mo’unga was never given a fair shot to compete against the golden boy Beauden Barrett, and when Injury to Damian McKenzie forced Barrett to move to 15 and Mo’unga to come into the XV, he was basically used in a game manager role while Barrett was given the true reins to the attack – similar to how the Blues were set up with Barrett and Otere Black. This completely takes away from his game, as playing as the lead playmaker for the Crusaders has highlighted just how good he is, while having a second playmaker at 15 would be a great support for him.

As one of Steve Hansen’s assistants, I was already worried that his selection would be bad news for Mo’unga, and this game all-but confirmed it, as Foster’s assistants Brad Mooar and Greg Feek were in charge of the South Island team. What followed was a subdued match for Mo’unga – not helped by a HIA assessment midway through the first half – as fullback Jordie Barrett was frequently popping up at first receiver. Mo’unga certainly had his moments, with an early grubber through almost ending in a try but for a great defensive play from Hoskins Sotutu and then of course his inch-perfect pass to Tyrel Lomax, but if the All Blacks were to trust him with full control like Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson does, then they would be so much more dangerous.

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