SHARE
Outflanked . . . North Otago loose forward Junior Fakatoufifita impressed when given a chance this season. PHOTO: PHIL JANSSEN

Four wins out of nine. No Meads Cup playoff. An overall sense of mediocrity. This year felt eerily similar to last year for the North Otago rugby team, which again failed to fire in the Heartland Championship. Hayden Meikle reviews the season.

GLASS HALF FULL
Well, at least the season started well.
It’s true. North Otago was sitting pretty with two straight wins to start the Heartland Championship, and the road to a return to the Meads Cup playoffs seemed smooth. Sigh.
In patches – PATCHES – the Old Golds did play some nice rugby.
In fact, three or four of the tries they scored were absolutely sensational.
Apart from that, hmm. New Zealand rugby’s longest active playoff streak (19 straight seasons) was maintained. There were no public scandals. Amd the scrum was pretty good.

GLASS HALF EMPTY
This was supposed to be the year North Otago got back into the Meads Cup for the first time in five long years.
Instead, it was another season of stagnation, and that is especially frustrating when you consider the team, on paper, was arguably the strongest in half a decade.
There was loads of talent there. Why didn’t it all come together on the field?
When it boils down to it, coaches Nigel Walsh and Jason Forrest and their senior players need to take responsibility for a below-par season.
Across the park, there was an overwhelming sense this team just wasn’t quite on the same page, evidence of which came in how many mistakes were made, how poor communication was at times on defence, and how North Otago was often bullied at the breakdown.
The front row and two-thirds of the loose trio aside, it was never clear which players commanded selection, and that is always a concern.
No inside back combination fired, and the fact three different players had to be used in the No 10 jersey spoke volumes.
Worst of all, there often seemed little spark – or joy, or oomph, or that intangible SOMETHING that makes good teams great – about the Old Golds this season.
It is slightly depressing to think North Otago might be just another mid-range Heartland Championship team now. Never awful, never brilliant – just average.

FIVE QUESTIONS
1. If Walsh and/or Forrest step down or get removed, who will coach North Otago next year? Barry Matthews, if he feels his time with South Canterbury is done? Kurow coach Nick Anderson? Valley coaches Mike Mavor and Shane Carter? Rising Maheno coach Chris Jennings? Someone from left field?
2. Who will be the starting first five next season?
3. What happened to Anthony Amato?
4. Wouldn’t it be nice to see Lemi Masoe back in gold and playing his 100th game for North Otago next season?
5. What can the North Otago union do to get its flagship team back to the top?

BEST PERFORMANCE
Two contenders here, so let’s call it a tie.
The 40-19 win over West Coast was hardly perfect but it was a statement performance that followed three straight losses.
And the 24-0 whitewash of Wairarapa-Bush in the final round of the regular season was a clutch defensive performance with playoff hopes on the line.

WORST PERFORMANCE
This is a weirdly difficult category to determine this season.
North Otago’s two heavy losses were to the Meads Cup finalists, so perhaps there is no shame in that.
The 27-24 loss at home to Horowhenua-Kapiti was a bit limp, and perhaps a sign of things to come.

THREE BEST PLAYERS
1. Filipo Veamatahau
The talented loose forward hit career-best form, and he is still a young man. Plays with phenomenal energy and skill, and both North Otago and the Old Boys club need to look after him.
2. Mika Mafi
Perhaps did not consistently reach the heights expected of him, but the burly No 8 was still at the heart of an excellent forward pack for much of the season.
3. Simon Lilicama
Faded a tad, but the vigorous winger showed his strength and always looked dangerous with ball in hand.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS
Ralph Darling and Josh Clark were consistently tough and led a tight five that never went backwards, and Junior Fakatoufifita had some good moments.
Taina Tamou was probably North Otago’s best player over the first four rounds, and Paul Tupai was a sound performer.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Frank Kelly did not really shine in club rugby after arriving late but the lanky Englishman was a bundle of energy for North Otago.

The season
By the numbers
Played: Nine.
Won: Four.
Lost: Five.
Leading tries: Simon Lilicama 4, Inoke Naufahu 4, Junior Fakatoufifita 4, Josh Buchan 3, Hemaua Samisoni 3, Ralph Darling 2, Mika Mafi 2.
Leading points: Buchan 89.