Ralph Darling has had enough of being at the second table.
The popular North Otago captain enjoyed hoisting the Lochore Cup last year but hungers to wrap his mitts around the more prestigious Meads Cup.
The Old Golds had a remarkable run from 2000 to 2010, reaching the final of the old third division in three consecutive years (winning in 2002), making the semifinals of the old second division, and winning the Meads Cup, the top honour in the Heartland Championship, in 2007 and 2010.
In recent years, success has been more on the mid-range scale.
Failing to even reach the Meads Cup section of the competition in the past three seasons suggests North Otago, a small but ambitious union, has slipped into under-achievement territory.
“When I grew up, North Otago was a top dog, you know, in the old third division. Now, as a player, you look back to that Meads Cup we won in 2010 and it feels like we’ve slowly just come back to the pack a little bit.
“I think, this year, we might be just starting to build a team that could push back up.
“I think we’ve just lacked some size in the last few years. There’s only so much a smaller guy can do. You play a Whanganui and a South Canterbury and it’s hard. A little guy can front up but it’s very hard.”
Darling, who turns 31 on Monday, hopes success – and sparkling rugby – on the field will lead to a resurgence in crowds at Whitestone Contracting Stadium.
Numbers have dipped sharply in recent years, and the best way to bring people back through the gate is by giving them something to cheer.
“Hopefully, if we can have some real success again, and challenge for the Meads Cup, things will pick up. Nobody wants to support a mediocre team.
“I think it’s also about playing really exciting rugby. Over the last few years, we haven’t really been rattling up those big scores that we used to.”
Nevertheless, the Old Golds finished the 2016 season in stunning fashion – they produced cracking efforts to win a Lochore Cup semifinal and final on the road – and the nucleus of the team appears strong.
Individual, as well as team, honours could be on Darling’s mind.
The all-energy prop or hooker has 82 first-class caps for North Otago, and seems certain to get to 100, but he is not too focused on the milestone.
“I’m just doing it till I stop enjoying it. When that happens, my time will be over.
“But I’m just rolling with it for now.”
Darling, a father of two and apprentice builder, has already banked one trophy this year.
He and his mentor and close friend, Lemi Masoe, were player-coaches for Old Boys, who won their sixth Citizens Shield in seven seasons.
Darling said he was revelling in the role, and was eager to sit some papers to pursue coaching in the future.