Heartland XV coach Barry Matthews has hailed the rise of North Otago prop Meli Kolinisau.
The inclusion of the burly tighthead was a feature of the Heartland XV squad named for this weekend’s one-off game against New Zealand Marist in Timaru.
Fellow Old Golds prop Ralph Darling and veteran midfielder Lemi Masoe have also made the cut, but those two have been regular members of the national squad in recent times.
Kolinisau, who switched from the Excelsior club to Valley this season, starred in a powerful North Otago pack during the Heartland Championship, and warranted national honours, Matthews said.
“The biggest thing with Meli is his scrummaging. As a tighthead prop, he’s destroyed most opposition, and got the better of all of them.
“I think his scrummaging has been outstanding, and that’s a credit to his coaching staff through the club and rep season.
“He needs to get a bit fitter, like a lot of Heartland forwards, but we’ve been really impressed with him. He has a lot of potential.”
Darling and Masoe, player-coaches for Old Boys this year, bring a huge amount of mana and experience to the squad.
North Otago’s much-respected elder statesmen also demanded selection for their on-field efforts, Matthews said.
“I thought Ralphie, towards the start and middle of the season especially, was playing some of the best rugby of his career.
“He’s a very good footballer, and I’ve got a lot of time for Ralphie.
“Lemi is the same. He’s getting on in years but he defies his age with his brain and the way he hits the weak shoulder.”
The Heartland XV only gets one game this year but the big carrot is the prospect of a tour of the United States in 2018.
The Old Golds trio will encounter some familiar faces in Timaru – first five Antini Brown is in the New Zealand Marist squad, and coach Nigel Walsh will guide the Marist team’s fortunes.
For Matthews, this week has been a welcome opportunity to get back up after his favoured South Canterbury side was knocked out of the Meads Cup at the semifinal stage.
An “absolutely gutted” Matthews is still struggling to come to terms with the 29-24 loss to Wanganui in Timaru.
“We just froze a little bit. We didn’t stick to structures and systems that we thought would help us get past and around Wanganui.
“I think we had the team this year to go all the way. Even with our injuries – we used 42 players – I still thought we could get the job done.”
South Canterbury has not won the Meads Cup since the Heartland Championship was created in 2006.
Matthews, who led North Otago to Meads Cup glory in 2010, has completed three years as South Canterbury coach, but does not yet know if he will do a fourth year.
“I want to focus on the Heartland XV, and do the best I can to get that team up for this game, then I will have a think about the future.”