Jason Rutledge has pride riding on fixture
Think what you like about the North versus South rugby concept, but Stags hooker Jason Rutledge just wants to win Sunday's game at Dunedin Stadium.
Rutledge will lead the South team, following in the sprig marks of his All Black father Leicester, who played in the days when the annual fixture doubled as a national trial and was one of the most eagerly anticipated dates on the rugby calendar.
The last North versus South game was played in 1995, at Carisbrook, as a precursor to that year's World Cup. It's unknown whether the concept will be retained beyond this weekend.
"It's like anything when you are playing your neighbour. It's like Otago versus Southland, Star versus Woodlands. It's one of those things you never want to lose," Rutledge said.
"It's going to go into the record books, no matter what happens in the game. You don't want to be 20 years down the track saying you got beaten in the last North versus South game."
Rutledge said he'd been privileged to be asked to lead the South team by coach Tony Gilbert.
He played in inter-island trials at age-group level but was never able to crack a national team.
While many believe Rutledge's form in recent years justified an All Black jersey, Sunday will mark a career highlight.
"Ten years down the track no one will know that all the All Blacks were away and it wasn't a real North v South game, but it will be good to play in one.
"I'll probably never play for the All Blacks so it's probably the biggest honour I'll have," Rutledge said.
With some players, like Rutledge, getting a rare chance to play on a national stage, and others still trying to push their All Black claims, there was plenty for those involved to play for, he said.
In some ways, the game is a throwback to the amateur days, with most of the preparation done over a beer rather than around a whiteboard. The South team will have only one training run together tomorrow, followed by a walk through on Saturday.
Much of the work would be done as they sat around and watched the All Blacks play Ireland on Saturday night, Rutledge said.
"Tony's keen for us to have a couple of beers together, talk about the game and then once we get onto the field, just rip into it."
The Highlanders and Crusaders would understandably be reluctant to give away much of their intellectual property for the benefit of the combined team, but Rutledge didn't think that would be too much of an issue.
"We'll sit down with Tom Donnelly and Jarrad Hoeata, who have got pretty good brains when it comes to the lineout, and work out something simple.
"It's not like the opposition will be able to do much study on you. It will probably be more a matter of trying to get away from the set pieces and have a bit of fun with the ball. The good thing about it is we will be under the roof and hopefully we'll see some good tries."
Rutledge is more than happy with the team he'll lead out on Sunday.
"I think it looks pretty sharp. There are plenty of Highlanders in there which is good because we'll all know each other. We talked with the Crusaders boys after [Friday's] game and there were some boys who had made themselves available who were really keen.
"I think the Highlanders and Crusaders will get on pretty well, and if there's any team you would want to blend with it would be the Crusaders."
While some players have made themselves unavailable for Sunday's game as they freshen up for the final three rounds of Super Rugby, Rutledge can't get enough rugby.
He's hoping to get to Woodlands' Thursday training run next week and earn a spot on the bench for the Scruffy Butt Memorial clash against Star.
- The Southland Times