No 8 Mika Mafi had another big game for North Otago. PHOTO: PHIL JANSSEN

North Otago just couldn’t quite get it done in Taumarunui.
A 22-18 loss to King Country was hardly cause to reach for the panic button, but it was perhaps a little wake-up call, after two straight wins to start the season, that nothing comes easy in the Heartland Championship.
Just like that, North Otago is down to sixth, and treading that fine line between the Meads and Lochore Cups that can quickly pile on the pressure.
The Old Golds played into the wind and, on the back of a dominant scrum, built a lead through a Junior Fakatoufifita try and took a shot of confidence into the second half.
But the home side took the initiative with a couple of personnel changes, showed more urgency and took control, and while North Otago finished strongly, it ran out of time and scoring opportunities.
They won’t be using travel as an excuse but it took the Old Golds 12 hours to get from Oamaru to Taumarunui, and you have to wonder if that was just a small factor in the loss.

North Otago coaches to see winger Simon Lilicama deliver another strong performance after a mixed season at club level.
Next to him, new centre Paul Tupai showed the value he can offer with a very solid game, while loan midfielder Hemaua Samasoni scored a try in his debut off the bench.
The front row scrummaged well and roamed around the park, and Anthony Amato impressed in his first competitive start for North Otago at lock.

“I thought we prepared reasonably well for the game. But just some decision-making on the field . . . and just not finishing our opportunities off. We dropped the ball over the line for a try, and left some points on the kicking tee. We didn’t trust each other to make the final pass a couple of times. The boys realise they let themselves down a little bit. We’ve still got plenty of belief and we’ll just look at what we are doing. We’ve got a good record at home and we want to keep that going this week.” – Nigel Walsh

King Country was joined at the top by Heartland Championship favourite Wanganui, which smashed Poverty Bay 53-0 in Gisborne.
South Canterbury made a big statement in the live television game on Sunday, beating Horowhenua-Kapiti 52-29 in a sparkling advertisement of Heartland rugby at the Cake Tin.
Mid Canterbury moved back into the top four with a 36-29 win over a gutsy West Coast in Ashburton, Thames Valley handed Buller a shock third straight loss with a 43-22 win in Westport, and Wairarapa-Bush beat hapless East Coast 26-5 in Ruatoria.

North Otago A: Lost to South Canterbury 48-39 in Timaru. Slumped to 29-3 at halftime but played much better in the second half. Halfback Kieran McClea (two), Logan Dunlop, Marcus Balchin, Dean Fenwick and Jeremiah Shields scored tries.
Under-18: Lost to South Canterbury 38-7. Affected by injuries – only 17 players stripped. Lock Blake Welsh was tireless and winger Cam Dodd tried hard. First competition game is this weekend.
Under-16: Lost to South Canterbury 46-21. Anthony Oosterhuis ran hard from No8, Will Knight had a strong game at hooker, and Isaac Eathorne sparked the backs when he came off the bench.
Under-13: Lost to Otago under-65kg 93-0 in Waikouaiti. Competed well in phases against a well-drilled Otago side. Kaleb Kiwara ran and tackled hard, and Jake Roney, Caden Hofman and Alex Wilson all had strong games.
Under-12: Lost to Otago under-48kg 77-0. North Otago youngsters tried hard against the big boys. Greyford Vaipulu never stopped running, and Harrison Weir and Cody Marshall tackled strongly.

North Otago is back home to host Horowhenua-Kapiti.
The northerners have not set the world on fire this season, and you have to hope the Old Golds can fire up and deliver a really convincing performance.
Veteran lock Josh Clark should be back in the selection mix, and it will interesting to see if any tinkering will be done with the starting XV as the Old Golds seek some quick, clean ball to get their X-factor players some space.

The scores
King Country 22 (Alex Thrupp, Rob Sherson, Zayn Tipping tries; Evaan Reihana 2 con, pen), North Otago 18 (Junior Fakatoufifita, Anthony Amato, Hemaua Samasoni tries; Josh Buchan pen). Halftime: North Otago 10-3.jordan SneakersNike