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"I wouldn't lay the blame at the coaches' feet at all. They don't miss the tackles and they don't drop the balls" – Colin Jackson

The North Otago rugby coaches and players are under the microscope following a couple of average seasons in the Heartland Championship. But what is the union doing to play its role in getting the Old Golds back to the top? Hayden Meikle asks North Otago Rugby Football Union chief executive Colin Jackson exactly that.

Q: How would you sum up the season?
Not to be. It started brilliantly – the first two and a-half games were stunning. We beat our old nemesis, Mid Canterbury, in a thrilling game. And in the first half of the third game, against King Country, we played brilliant rugby, dominated the whole half, and we should have been up by 30 points. It was only seven, I think, and that summed us up a little bit.
We created a lot of opportunities but executed poorly.

Q: Nigel Walsh has acknowledged this North Otago team under-achieved. Do you think that was the case?
Yeah. The team had the potential to be in the Meads Cup.
To win it? Not sure about that. We were lacking key players in certain positions.
We were one game and two bonus points away from being in the top four. That one game was King Country, which we should have won. We smashed them.
We had the best scrum in the Heartland Championship, but we were possibly the softest team on defence. Maybe that says something.

Q: Do you think Walsh and his assistant, Jason Forrest, have done a good job over the past couple of years?
Yep. Very good job. I think the whole management team have done a very good job over the last two years, and that goes right down to the development team as well.
I wouldn’t lay the blame at the coaches’ feet at all. They don’t miss the tackles and they don’t drop the balls.
You put two or three top-class players in our side and we’re probably talking very differently.

Q: Is it getting harder to source those players?
It is. The step up from club rugby to Heartland is enormous – the intensity, the speed.
Club rugby was very good this year. But we are lacking the intense type of player – a Mike Mavor, a Ross Hay, a Barry Fox, an Eric Duff. Are we developing them? Time will tell.
Are we sitting back and just saying, ‘This is our lot’? Definitely not.

Q: After a long period of success, North Otago has been unable to even make the Meads Cup since 2013. As a union, are you sort of adjusting your expectations?
No. We’re still ambitious.
But we are playing with half the number of players that some other unions have, so that critical mass is a struggle.
If you look at East Coast, West Coast and Buller, the smaller unions are at the bottom, and the bigger unions are well resourced and doing well. It’s tough.

Q: What is the union doing to get the Old Golds back to the top?
We’re having a stakeholders’ forum in February, so we can have a good look at the future of North Otago rugby and where we’re going.
Stakeholders, sponsors, rugby people – everyone will get a chance to look at what we need to improve.
We’ll also have a club forum in March to look at how we can build on a couple of good years of club rugby. We have to get everyone on the same page and look at our future.
We had a strategic planning meeting with the board in September. That was facilitated by New Zealand Rugby.
So we’re not content with where we sit. We want to be up there, not down there.

Q: Do you think it’s likely you will be looking for a new head coach next year?
Hopefully not.

Q: You’d be keen to see Walsh continue?
Yes. Personally, yes.
There are reviews to be done with players and management, but I fully support Nigel and Forry, and the other management. I think they’ve done a really good job.
We have a group of players to build around, and a young captain who’s had a very good first season.