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Back off . . . North Otago winger Paige Ayres fends Pirates defender Greer Muir during the women's club rugby semifinal at Hancock Park in Dunedin on Saturday. PHOTO: JOHN CASWELL

Coach Mark Wilson believes a very young North Otago women’s rugby team has taken great strides this season.

The women finished the competitive part of their campaign with a humbling 70-7 loss to Pirates in the semifinal in Dunedin on Saturday.

But that heavy defeat should not detract from the overall positive aspects of the season, Wilson said.

“I think we saw huge progress.

“This is a very young bunch of rugby players, and when you look at the development of those young players and the structures we’ve put in place, it’s quite exciting for the future.

“Our skill level is certainly noticeably higher than it was when we started.”

Otago Spirit flanker Morgan Henderson led the North Otago charge all season, and Cheyenne Cunningham, Anahoi Siale, Lini Kaufana, Esitimoa Ngalo and Tiaana McGregor all had their moments.

There were also game efforts from schoolgirls such as Haruko Tomita and Shania Kohinga.

Chipping ahead . . . North Otago halfback Lini Kaufana pops in a kick.

In a major change from previous seasons, North Otago fielded no imports – Catherine Wilcock was English but happened to be working in the district.

That was not a bad approach, but a couple of talented senior players could have made a big difference, Wilson said.

“Because of our age, we possibly struggled a bit up front at times, and we probably needed a directional player in the backs.

“I think we’re in a development phase, and there is a place for a couple of good import players there, but only if they are key personnel like an experienced front-rower and a good first five.

“That could have made a massive difference for our youngsters.”

The Dunedin women’s competition is short – just eight games followed by the playoffs – and Wilson is eager to see it expanded.

North Otago is looking at friendly games in the coming weeks against a combined Pirates and Alhambra-Union side, while a semi-official competition involving shortened games will be held over four consecutive weekends in Dunedin later this year.

Wilson said North Otago showed some good signs in the semifinal despite the heavy loss.

“The reality of it is Pirates are a very, very good rugby side. They came out right from the start and we took too much time to get into the game.

“But we stuck to it for the whole 80 minutes, which was incredibly pleasing, and we put together some good things in the second half.”

McGregor scored North Otago’s only try, and Cunningham added a conversion.