Well that was worth the wait.
After an eight-year hiatus, New Zealand’s historic North vs. South fixture returned with everything but supporters at Sky Stadium in Wellington, with the Southerners prevailing 38-35 via an 83rd minute try from winger Will Jordan.
Then, on Sunday, Ian Foster unveiled his first squad as head coach of the All Blacks, naming seven uncapped players for a Test season that as yet has no clear schedule or destinations.
Still, it was a big 24 hours for New Zealand rugby as a game with such a rich history was reconstructed for a modern purpose and a new All Blacks era officially got underway.
Here are some of the key takeaways.
WONDROUS WILL JORDAN WILL BE TOUGH TO LEAVE OUT
Of the seven debutants named by Foster on Sunday, Will Jordan is surely the man whose form demands selection in an All Blacks starting XV that will contest the Bledisloe Cup, most likely in mid-October.
Jordan was electric for the Crusaders throughout Super Rugby Aotearoa, topping no less than four key attacking statistics as Scott Robertson’s side made it four trophies in four years.
And he was brilliant again in Wellington on Saturday night, scoring two tries, including the match-winner, in a performance that will have his Crusaders teammates and incumbent All Blacks wingers, Sevu Reece and George Bridge, looking over their shoulders.
Jordan’s first try had a touch of good fortune about it, as Caleb Clarke batted a ball that was headed for the touchline back infield and into the path of Jordan, who simply scooped it up and ran 50 metres to score untouched.
But his second five-pointer, and the match-winning play, was an effort of supreme skill as a perfectly-timed leap saw him snaffle Richie Mo’unga’s pinpoint cross-kick in front of North replacement Mitchell Hunt.
Jordan otherwise drifted in and around the South backline looking for opportunities, counter-attacked with purpose and generally looked threatening every time he touched the ball.
He was joined in the All Blacks squad on Sunday by Blues young gun Caleb Clarke, who was another star of Super Rugby Aotearoa; playing opposite Jordan for the North, Clarke also had a strong evening at Sky Stadium apart from the five-pointer he gifted the Crusaders flyer.
Just how Foster and his fellow All Blacks assistants bring together their back three for the Test season at this stage has a number of variables, though if we’re to follow the exact breakdown of the 36-man squad, it appears that Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett will contest the No. 10 jersey and Barrett will not be considered as a fullback.
That could change, clearly, but such was the Super Rugby Aotearoa form of Jordie Barrett, and with Damian McKenzie proving his value as a second distributor at the back, Foster is certainly flush with varying combinations.
A nice headache to have, and one sure to generate plenty of discussion in the run to Bledisloe I.
A CRUSADERS SPECIAL, AND ONE THAT DESERVED A TRY
Rolling maul tries usually follow a fairly familiar script, particular when they come from a five-metre lineout.
So it was genuinely exciting to see a variation from the South on Saturday, a move that had a touch of Barbarians play about it.
George Bridge snuck into the front of the lineout and took the throw from Codie Taylor, the winger then quickly popping a pass to Brad Weber who quickly fired the ball to a pod of forwards headed by Shannon Frizell; the back-rower entered contact in an upright position, allowing his south teammates to quickly bind on and create the maul just to the left of the North’s uprights.
The South then peeled away to score through Codie Taylor, only for the try to be disallowed after a truck-and-trailer was ruled in consultation with the TMO. Rolling mauls are often difficult to officiate, particularly to the naked eye in real time, though there was enough evidence to make a case either way in this particular situation.
What there is little doubt on however was the innovation the South showed in taking the typical lineout drive away from the lineout itself. It is a play the Wallabies, and hopefully the Springboks and Pumas, will need to be wary of later this year.
A CANE-SAVEA-SOTUTU BACK-ROW IS A SCARY PROSPECT
It was great to see Hoskins Sotutu back on the paddock after the No. 8 missed the back of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
The Blues back-rower had done enough to secure an All Blacks call-up with his form earlier in the year, his performance in Wellington well and truly establishing him as the natural No. 8 in Foster’s squad.
That’s not to say Ardie Savea couldn’t shift to the back of the scrum, a situation that would allow for Shannon Frizell to play at No. 6; Dalton Papali’I and Akira Ioane are the other options in the squad.
But what Sotutu does offer at No. 8 is an all-round skill set that have rightly seen him compared with both Zinzan Brooke and Kieran Read, talents Sotutu demonstrated on Saturday night.
Sotutu secured a brilliant breakdown turnover late in the first half, contorting his arm to ensure the ball was back on the North’s side of the ruck, before he later laid on a try for Aaron Smith with a powerful run that drew in three South defenders and in which Damian McKenzie also handled twice.
All Blacks forwards coach John Plumtree seemed to indicate how the All Blacks plan to play this year: with power.
“These boys are all big and physical, and these are the type of guys we are going to need coming up against the bigger teams in world rugby, [such as] England and South Africa,” Plumtree said of his back-row options. “We need guys who can create momentum just through brutality and not [needing] space to get momentum.
“They can make space for us by taking a man on. We need that. It has been identified. Also the way they can move bodies at the breakdown and be really aggressive in that area. We want that type of ball for our backs, so the forwards are big and fast and are going to be impressive.”
Whether it’s in close or out wide, Sotutu is the like-for-like replacement for retired All Blacks captain Kieran Read. It’s little wonder England coach Eddie Jones was sniffing about before Sotutu had committed himself to New Zealand.
THAT WAS GREAT, CAN WE HAVE SOME MORE OF IT?
After all the conjecture about how the eligibility was determined, once the players got out there on Saturday night there was absolutely no concerns about how invested they were in the North vs. South contest.
What we got as a result was a gripping 84 minutes of action that put the best of New Zealand rugby on show, with a few notable exceptions, in a match that both sides were desperate to win, evidenced by the celebrations that followed Jordan’s breathtaking second try.
The North vs. South match was only revived because of the chaos created by the coronavirus pandemic, though with ongoing uncertainty around how the 2021 season might look there is a chance that it could be brought back again.
And what about a State of Origin-type three-game series then?
When cashflow is more important than ever in the sporting world, New Zealand Rugby, who has a significant financial hole to consider, could perhaps add a full series at the back end of Super Rugby Aotearoa, which will start earlier next year.
The idea certainly has the support of All Blacks star Ardie Savea.
“100 per cent,” Savea said when asked if the fixture should be repeated in 2021. “I wish it was a three-game series. Hopefully whoever is in charge can make this game happen every year and turn it into like a State of Origin series. I’m pretty gutted about the loss, it would have been good to play again next week and redeem ourselves.
“North, South, make it a fixture. It should be awesome.”
We’re with you, Ardie.