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Changing colours . . . Sione Misiloi, who has played for North Otago, Otago and the Highlanders, has linked up with the Southland Stages for this year's NPC competition. PHOTO: PHIL JANSSEN

Once an Old Gold, always an Old Gold – that is the motto for many rugby players who got their start with the North Otago Heartland rugby team. Kayla Hodge chats with former St Kevin’s College pupil Sione Misiloi, who has gone on to make rugby his career.

Oamaru represented the dream for Sione Misiloi – and it is a dream that keeps on giving.

Whether it was playing rugby for St Kevin’s College, North Otago, the Highlanders, Otago or the Southland Stags, Oamaru provided the foundation of Misiloi’s rugby career.

The Tongan-born rugby player moved to Oamaru with his family in 2011, and finished his final three years of high school at St Kevin’s.

After leaving school in 2013, the loose forward moved to Dunedin to study physical education but dropped out after two years to give a professional rugby career a “good crack”.

Misiloi was given the chance to play for his home region as an Old Golds player of origin in 2016, when the team won the Lochore Cup.

Playing alongside North Otago’s Lemi Masoe and Ralph Darling had helped shape him and his career.

“I really enjoyed it because I got to play with some really good players,” Misiloi said.

“A lot of those guys I watched them playing for North Otago when I was at St Kevin’s, so to be able to play with them at that level, it was a dream come true, really.”

North Otago was his starting point and then in 2018 he was selected for Otago in the National Provincial Championship (NPC).

He made more than 20 appearances for the franchise from 2018 to 2020, but nothing meant more than returning home to Oamaru.

“I think the highlight of my career was winning the Ranfurly Shield, and being able to play against North Otago.

“To me, it was [another] dream come true.

“When I was at St Kevin’s, I used to always watch the North Otago team play. I used to always tell myself, ‘hopefully I can make those teams one day’.”

He was then elevated again, selected for the Highlanders last year and again this year.

“It’s been surreal really. I didn’t expect that I would get to that level.

“I just really wanted to make a career out of it, and help my family out, so I worked hard and managed to get an opportunity to play for Otago and be with the Highlanders.”

As he continued to grow and produce strong performances, Misiloi was picked up by the Southland Stags for the 2021 NPC season.

The season had been on hold due to Alert Level 4 – Southland’s first game back will be on September 25 – but he had really enjoyed the experience so far.

He moved to Invercargill from Dunedin for the season, and said it was “a bigger version of Oamaru”.

The people were lovely, and backed the Stags, he said.

“For me, another reason why I love rugby so much is you get to travel to new places, get to learn new things, and enjoy other things in life.”

Misiloi was determined to see how far his rugby career could take him, but Oamaru was never far from his mind.

His family still lived in the town, and he visited often.

“I still call Oamaru, pretty much, home. I tell everyone where I’m from.”

When he was not on the rugby field, Misiloi said he kept “tabs” on the Old Golds’ success.

“I watched when they won the Meads Cup. It seems like they’re going quite well under Forrey [Jason Forrest].

“I think North Otago’s definitely doing well in the past three years – having those three Ranfurly Shield challenges, winning the Meads Cup … I think they’re developing some young players coming through too.”

New Zealand Rugby has confirmed the Heartland Championship will recommence next week under Alert Level 2, and teams were able to safely return to training from Wednesday this week.

North Otago’s first game is against East Coast in Oamaru next Saturday.