North Otago found itself on the wrong side of a nail-biter for the first time this season.
It was beaten 18-17 by West Coast in Greymouth on Saturday, leaving the Old Golds in a three-way tie for first place on the 2019 Heartland Championship table.
It was a hard-fought contest.
North Otago out-scored West Coast three tries to two, but two second-half penalties by West Coast first-five Sean McClure put his side in front and North Otago was unable to repeat the last-minute heroics of its previous two encounters.
Charles Elton and Ralph Darling were standouts for North Otago, while the midfield partnership of Sam Tatupu and Lemi Masoe continued to impress.
North Otago coach Jason Forrest said the team created plenty of opportunities but did not finish well enough.
“It wasn’t really our handling, more the last pass; we sort of went into our shells a little bit,” he said.
“I know we will take a lot of learnings from it and at the end of the day, we got one point out of it.”
North Otago has conceded 100 points in five games, the lowest in the 12-team competition.
But it has scored only 124, which ranks in the bottom five of the competition.
“We’re just not playing with a bit of freedom, not quite ticking around the attacking side of things – that will come, though,” Forrest said.
Tomorrow’s opposition is perennial heavyweight Wanganui, which has won six Meads Cups and been runner-up twice.
It lost its first three games but, ominously, looks to be returning to form at the right time of the season.
Forrest said Wanganui was a quality outfit, but he wanted the North Otago players to go out and express themselves.
“We are not going to put too much focus [on] that it’s a do-or-die game, because it’s not.
“If we can go out there and play to our potential, and play to the system, that’s all we can ask of the guys.”
Just five points separates the top eight teams in the Heartland Championship with three rounds to play.
A win tomorrow would put North Otago in the box seat for a place in the Meads Cup playoffs, and go a long way to securing home advantage.
A loss would not be disastrous, but would mean North Otago would need to secure bonus points and rely on other results to go its way for an easier run at Meads Cup glory.
Adding to the occasion tomorrow is the fact it is Masoe’s 100th game for the province.
GThe midfield back has been a rock this year and Forrest said it would provide extra motivation for the team.