North Otago coach Nigel Walsh says his players are hurting but he is confident they will stay focused for two more games.
The Old Golds have failed to qualify for the Meads Cup for a fourth straight season, a bitter pill to swallow for the two-time champions.
They are bound for Greymouth to play West Coast in a Lochore Cup semifinal this weekend and will seek to defend the consolation prize they claimed last year.
Walsh said there was still plenty to play for despite missing out on an opportunity to play for the Meads Cup, the No1 prize in the Heartland Championship.
“You’ve got to get up. We’re the holders of the Lochore Cup, and we want to hold on to it,” he said.
“It’s still a trophy, and winning it is still something we want to achieve. We’re still going to have goals, and set targets, and we want to finish the season off well.”
In a nutshell, everything that could go wrong for North Otago last weekend did go wrong.
The Old Golds slipped to a tough 10-6 loss to Wanganui, and both Mid Canterbury (43-38 over King Country) and West Coast (36-26 over Wairarapa-Bush) grabbed bonus-point wins on the road.
That led to North Otago plummeting from fourth to seventh, and an extraordinary three-way tie for fourth. Defending champion Wanganui slipped into the Meads Cup with a better points differential than Mid Canterbury and West Coast.
So, time to ponder the what-might-have-beens for North Otago.
The Heartland Championship can be an unforgiving competition. The Old Golds could be reflecting on an unbeaten round robin – instead, they ponder losses by three, two, seven and four points that consigned them to the second tier.
“We’re very frustrated,” Walsh said.
“We can sit back and say if only – if only we’d beaten Buller, if only we’d beaten Horowhenua-Kapiti, if only we’d beaten South Canterbury.
“To come this far and miss out by one game is very frustrating. The boys are hurting.”
North Otago finished the round robin with a 4-4 record.
That suggests an average team, but Walsh is not having a bar of that word.
“We’re better than that. We’ve ticked a lot of boxes this year.
“I think we’re playing better footy this year. The forwards have set a really good platform. We just haven’t been able to finish off a few jobs.”
Walsh said the game against Wanganui was a grind, as the 10-6 score suggested, but still a good game.
North Otago played into the wind and trailed just 7-3 at halftime. There was no lack of endeavour in the second half, but the Old Golds couldn’t find a way over the line.
“Both teams went out and put bodies on the line. That would have been the best defensive effort I’ve seen from both teams. We just shut each other down.
“They had a very good side and we managed to keep them at bay. I’m proud of the boys because they gave their all.”
Mid Canterbury will host Poverty Bay, which beat Thames Valley 35-34 to scrape into the top eight, in the other Lochore Cup semifinal.
Warm favourite South Canterbury finished four points clear at the top after a 45-7 thumping of East Coast, and will host Wanganui in one Meads Cup semifinal.
The other is between Horowhenua-Kapiti and Buller, a rematch of Saturday’s game in Westport that Horowhenua-Kapiti won 30-26.