Mixed emotions in Old Golds win

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Coach Barry Stevens acknowledged some bittersweet feelings after North Otago’s golden finish to the season. The Old Golds romped to Lochore Cup victory for the first time since 2009 with a stunning 44-22 win over King Country in Te Kuiti on Saturday.
That, following the upset of Mid Canterbury in the semifinal, represented a wonderful finish to what was shaping as a poor season, and finally revealed the ability of a team in transition. Stevens reflected again on the “soul-searching” the team had done after a woeful performance against West Coast in the final round that led to North Otago scraping into the playoffs in eighth place. That led to a conscious decision to release the shackles and encourage the players to have a bit of fun, and the result was a pair of cracking performances that went some way to alleviating the disappointment over missing out on the top four. “While it’s great to win the Lochore Cup, it highlights our frustration, and the potential this team has,” Stevens said. “Over those last two rounds, you saw a Meads Cup side, and it’s frustrating we didn’t see that earlier.
“At the same time, we’re pleased to win the Lochore Cup. I’m really proud of the guys.” North Otago made a stunning start to the final when fullback Craig Smith sparked a counter-attack and brother Robbie was on hand to score the opening try after a series of lovely passes. King Country actually dominated the first half, but the Old Golds scored two late tries _ Maene Mapusaga scampered 75m for a runaway, and fellow loose forward Filipo Veamatahau barged over from a scrum _ to lead 24-8 at the break. Turning with the wind, the Old Golds continued to combine shuddering defence with sparkling ball-handling, and profited through tries to outside backs Craig Smith, Simon Lilicama and Matthew Vocea. The attacking play was breath-taking at times, but Stevens felt the real key to success was North Otago’s defensive urgency and line speed. “Finals are about which side can handle the pressure, so we had a real focus on our defence and our ability to tackle behind the gain line. That gave us confidence to then attack and score some good tries. “We probably played some of our best attacking rugby of the season in the first half, even though we only had about 30% possession.” Stevens was reluctant to single out too many players for praise as he reflected on the campaign. However, he was impressed with flanker Mat Duff, who grasped his opportunity after missing the initial squad and was a stand-out in the second half of the season. Lock Jared Whitburn was an unsung hero for his workrate, young No 8 Veamatahau started to show his potential, and the likes of Robbie Smith and Ralph Darling showed their experience in the playoffs. Stevens would not be drawn on whether he would be back for a third season as coach. Heartland teams generally experience high turnover, but Stevens understood many of the North Otago players had indicated they would be back in 2017.