Ready for a challenge

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They say defending a title is a lot harder than winning one _ and that is just fine with Shaun Cunningham.
The North Otago men’s hockey team heads to Invercargill this weekend to try to retain the coveted Ian Smith Trophy.
North Otago charged to victory last year to claim the trophy for the first time since 1990, and after waiting so long to taste success, the province’s top players are loath to go back to being also-rans.
Cunningham, the vastly experienced player-coach, knows the men in gold will have targets on their backs but he is completely relaxed about that.
“Oh, definitely. The defending champions are always a target. Everyone’s looking at us and that’s fine.
“We’re confident. We’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain, and we know what to expect.”A huge bonus for North Otago is that the squad is not a hastily-assembled selection from multiple clubs.
The provincial team is effectively the tight-knit Tainui club under a different name, so team cohesion and communication is never going to be a problem.
A (very) fresh face and welcome addition to the squad is 18-year-old Waitaki Boys’ High School star Jonty Naylor, who might be considered as filling an “apprentice” role if he was not so talented _ and running high on confidence after firing in five goals for the First XI in a 5-1 win over Roncalli on Sunday.
“ He’s ready. In fact, he was ready last year,” Cunningham said.
“Jonty’s in the Southern under-18 team so we asked if we could have him this weekend. It will be good for him to get some really tough competition.”Five North Otago players _ Cunningham, Sam Brocas, Richard Knight, Josh Dalziel and Jared Ovens _ made the tournament team last year, and all return.
North Otago’s opening game is against neighbour South Canterbury on Saturday morning. It plays Eastern Southland on Saturday afternoon, Invercargill and Central Otago on Sunday, and Mid Canterbury on Monday.
Meanwhile, Tainui battled to a 3-3 draw with Wakanui Blue after trailing by two goals in Timaru on Saturday. Nick Dalziel scored two goals and brother Josh scored the other.
Tainui B was beaten 1-0 by Mackenzie/Cave on Sunday. In a Friday thriller, Lauren Judd scored a late goal to guide Waitaki Girls’ High School Development to a 1-0 win over St Kevin’s College Development. All Saturday hockey was cancelled due to rain.