Missing out on the Meads Cup playoffs feels like a failure for North Otago. So how does failing to reach the Lochore Cup final feel for the ambitious union? Hayden Meikle looks back on a Heartland Championship campaign that never really got going.
GLASS HALF FULL
The Old Golds were really not far off the pace this year.
They missed out on a Meads Cup place by a single point, and they maintained New Zealand rugby’s longest active playoff streak (18 seasons and counting).
All four of their losses were narrow – there were margins of three, two, seven and four points – and whether Wanganui or Horowhenua-Kapiti wins the Meads Cup, North Otago will have some consolation of knowing how close it got to beating the best team in the Heartland Championship.
There were a handful of sizzling tries, and flashes of absolute brilliance in some games.
North Otago fielded a forward pack as good as any in the competition. A lack of real oomph up front has been an issue in recent years, but there was no problem with the big men this season.
GLASS HALF EMPTY
Four straight years out of the Meads Cup!
That hurts, and as long as North Otago wants to be a union that punches above its weight, it must not be satisfied with life in the second tier.
You could also argue that having so many close losses is not a good thing – that it spoke to an inability to finish off games, or come through in the crunch – and point out that two of North Otago’s wins also had narrow margins (six points and two points), so could have ended up in defeat.
There was no consistency about the Old Golds, never any real sense that you felt they had everything under control.
The backline struggled to play as a unit, and by the end of the season, there were still five or six positions in the starting XV that did not have obvious first-choice selections.
When it boils down to it, this was technically North Otago’s worst season since 1999. It made the old third division final in 2000, 2001 and 2002, reached semifinals in the old second division in 2003, 2004 and 2005, and qualified for either the Meads Cup semifinals or Lochore Cup final every year from 2006 to 2016.
Tricky one, this. Mainly because there was no magnificent all-round performance.
Tempting to say the 57-14 thumping of East Coast, but the boys from Ruatoria were desperately poor this year.
Let’s go with the 34-12 win in round six over a Poverty Bay team that turned out to be decent.
The Old Golds saved their worst till last.
When you fail to make the Meads Cup, you really need to make a push for the Lochore Cup or the season is a bit of a write-off.
North Otago ended the season with a damp-squib performance against West Coast in the semifinal.
THREE BEST PLAYERS
1. Ralph Darling.
The much-loved prop just keeps getting better. Charged around the field, led a powerful tight five, and brought up 100 first-class appearances at the weekend.
2. Mika Mafi.
Did not get to play every game as he yo-yoed between Otago and North Otago. But what a player. The strapping No 8 was a class above the competition, and made big yards every time he touched the ball. If only he had been a permanent member of the team.
3. Josh Clark.
Mr Consistency returned to the pack after a spell in Southland and, predictably, added all his grunt and experience to the lineout and the loose.
Lemi Masoe might be in the twilight of his playing career but his class and consistency in midfield has not dimmed. Dan Lewis and Antini Brown both had their moments at first five-eighth. Lock Jared Whitburndid not play the full season but he never gave less than his best. And the big improver was Meli Kolinisau, who locked down the tighthead prop jersey and delivered every week.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Josh Buchan is not the total package – he made some prominent mistakes, especially in the early rounds – but hearts skipped whenever the young fullback got the ball with room to move. Also has a very decent boot. Watch this space.