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Catch me if you can . . . North Otago winger Frank Kelly races away from the Wairarapa-Bush defence during the Heartland Championship game in Masterton on Saturday. PHOTO: JADE CVETKOV

Time to rescue a forgettable season.

North Otago completed step one of three in the pursuit of that goal with a dominant 24-0 win over Wairarapa-Bush in Masterton in the final round of the Heartland Championship last Saturday.

Step two has a familiar ring to it – it is back to Masterton this weekend for an immediate rematch in the Lochore Cup semifinal.

Step three? That could be in Oamaru, which would be a nice way to finish the campaign. If the Old Golds can beat Wairarapa-Bush again, and Mid Canterbury can upset Horowhenua-Kapiti in Levin, the Lochore Cup final will be at Whitestone Contracting Stadium.

When the dust settled on the final round, North Otago was left in seventh place, thanks to West Coast being deducted points for fielding an ineligible player.

Seventh is hardly reason to get excited, but at least it ensured New Zealand rugby’s longest active playoff streak – 19 seasons and counting – stayed alive.

In fact, if the Old Golds had managed to score one more try, they would have got a bonus point, joined Wairarapa-Bush on 21 points, ranked higher by virtue of winning the round robin game, and hosted a semifinal.

Unfortunately, securing bonus points has been a problem all year for North Otago – only hapless East Coast has fewer.

North Otago coach Nigel Walsh, avoiding the ignominy of presiding over the province’s worst season in two decades, remains disappointed not to be playing for the Meads Cup but can at least reflect on a job well done in the final round.

“We’ve been under-performing. We haven’t played with consistency, and that’s been frustrating.

“But we put it on the park when it mattered.”

Walsh said there was lots of motivation to finish the season strongly, starting with a rematch against a Wairarapa-Bush side that had been buoyant after beating South Canterbury in Masterton a couple of weeks ago.

“We’re going back up to win. Wairarapa-Bush will be hurting, and we know we will need to lift our intensity again.

“And we could be playing in a home final if Mid Canterbury can help us out.”

The Old Golds scored early last Saturday but the score remained 7-0 at halftime as both sides struggled to string phases together.

Young prop Kelepi Funaki, starting as regular tighthead Meli Kolinisau was unable to make training during the week, anchored a solid scrum, but North Otago really exerted its dominance up front when Kolinisau came off the bench.

The visiting side scored two more tries but Walsh said other opportunities went begging.

Paul Tupai, better known as a midfield back, became the third North Otago player to wear the troublesome No 10 jersey, and Walsh said the loan player acquitted himself well.

There were no real shocks in the final round of the competition.

West Coast, stung by the relatively fresh news the union was being stripped of points, thumped East Coast 62-26, and Meads Cup favourite Wanganui eased into the playoffs with a 57-27 win over Horowhenua-Kapiti.

South Canterbury limped through a poor first half before beating Thames Valley 33-24, Buller finished a poor season on a bright note with a 41-27 win over Poverty Bay, and King Country pipped Mid Canterbury 31-29.

The scores
North Otago 24
Paul Tupai, Junior Fakatoufifita, Hemaua Samisoni tries; Josh Buchan 3 con, pen
Wairarapa-Bush 0
Halftime: North Otago 7-0.

Semifinals
Meads Cup: Wanganui v Thames Valley, South Canterbury v King Country.
Lochore Cup: Horowhenua-Kapiti v Mid Canterbury, Wairarapa-Bush v North Otago.