Ready to go . . . North Otago captain Sam Sturgess (left) and head coach Jason Forrest are looking forward to the start of the season. PHOTO: KAYLA HODGE

The opportunity to play three Ranfurly Shield challenges in a row does not come up very often for small rugby unions.

It is a fact that is not lost on North Otago head coach Jason Forrest and captain Sam Sturgess, as they prepare to take on Hawke’s Bay next Wednesday.

As the holder of the Meads Cup, North Otago is given the opportunity to challenge for the shield again.

Sturgess was involved in the Old Golds’ challenges against Otago in 2019 and Canterbury in 2020, and counts himself lucky to be involved in a third. Some players did not even get the opportunity to play one.

“The Ranfurly Shield for New Zealand rugby is massive,” Sturgess said.

“It’s an exciting opportunity to showcase Heartland rugby.”

Forrest echoed Sturgess’ comments. He said it was a special opportunity for North Otago rugby, and there was only one goal in sight – bringing the shield home.

“There’s certainly no small unions like us that have had that opportunity,” Forrest said.

“We’ve just got to make sure the guys understand that we are actually going up there to try and bring the shield home – 99.9% of people think that’s unrealistic as it is, but that’s our mindset.”

A 24-man team has been named, although that will be reduced to 23 after the weekend’s club matches.

For Forrest, it had been one of the toughest teams to chose during his time with the union.

The coaching team encouraged players to express themselves on the field and soak up the experience.

“We want them to go run out with a smile and enjoy the occasion … and make sure that smile’s on your face when you come off, as buggered as you are.”

The union’s larger squad of 36 players had been training together for the past month, and the game against King Country at Queen’s Birthday weekend was huge for their preparation.

No loan players were being used for the challenge, which was an indication of the depth of North Otago rugby, Forrest said.

“As nice as it would’ve been to have the Heartland Championship, doing that local thing we had last year with Mid and South Canterbury was very good.

“There’s a lot of these guys that probably wouldn’t have got a shot last year at Heartland level.

“They got their chance … and the guys took their chance.”

Robbie Smith was unavailable this season, and Forrest was in discussions with other players to fill his position.

The team would train in Oamaru on Monday, before travelling to Christchurch on Tuesday night.

The players would fly to Napier on Wednesday morning, have a walk-through and captain’s run before the game that evening.

North Otago team to challenge Hawke’s Bay:

Forwards: Mosese Aho, Samuela Babiau, Mathew Duff, Logan Dunlop, Kelepi Funaki, Jake Greenslade, Oliver Kinzett, Melikisua Kolinisau, Tayne Russell, Sam Sturgess, Manulua Taiti, Toni Taufa, Blake Welsh, Cameron Rowland, Aydn Anguna (one to be omitted after the weekend).

Backs: Levi Atiga, Sione Faaoso, Abel Magalogo, Jake Matthews, Mataroa Maui, Taniela Samita, Filipo Sefo Sefulu, Hayden Todd, Alipate Tuipulotu.