That sound you hear is the buzz of another Heartland Championship season. North Otago begins its bid for Meads Cup glory with a home game against Buller tomorrow. Hayden Meikle previews the season.
Home games: v Buller (tomorrow), v Horowhenua-Kapiti (September 15), v West Coast (September 29), v South Canterbury (October 6)
Away games: v Mid Canterbury (September 1), v King Country (September 8), v Thames Valley (September 22), v Wairarapa-Bush (October 13).
There is nothing worse than using “must-win” early in the season. But honestly, this opening game is a massive one for North Otago.
Victory over Buller – a team most have locked in for a Meads Cup spot – would be a real statement of intent.
Mid Canterbury away is another biggie, but it’s easy to imagine that clash with the old enemy, South Canterbury, in round seven as the defining moment of the season.
IN CASE YOU’D FORGOTTEN
North Otago finished seventh in the Heartland Championship last year.
That tells only half the story, though. The Old Golds had no luck, losing games by two, three, four and seven points, and missed out on the Meads Cup by a single point.
There is a real core of experience and strength about this North Otago team, especially in the pack.
Sam Sturgess – a permanent appointment as captain this season – will be joined by the ageless Ralph Darling and the in-form Meli Kolinisau in a super front row, Jared Whitburn and Filipo Veamatahau anchor the second and back rows, and Inoke Naufahu and Matthew Vocea might still be young men but they know what is expected of a backline at this level.
The Old Golds should have plenty of contenders for rookie of the year.
Taina Tamou, the former Southlander who starred for Athletic Marist this season, could be a revelation at second five-eighth.
Likewise, lock-flanker Anthony Amato will grab attention if he can maintain his Old Boys club form.
Two rising former St Kevin’s College pupils, prop Kelepi Funaki and midfielder Antonio Misiloi, are others to watch.
There is something of an air of mystery around the import situation this year.
Kaikorai lock Pita Sinamoni and Southern midfielder Paul Tupai are in the mix, if not technically signed for the season, and University A halfback Kieran McClea can be classified as either an import or a player of origin.
First five-eighth Josh Casey would have been welcomed back but it seems he has chosen to stay in Dunedin. That leaves converted fullback Josh Buchan, Kayne Middleton and the untested Tyler Burgess to contend for the No 10 jersey, unless there is a late arrival.
You will note there is a name missing. English first five Dan Lewis, coming good after a disrupted club season, is heading home next week for personal reasons.
It was a coup for North Otago when outstanding No 8 Mika Mafi decided to join the union on a permanent basis.
Mafi transformed the fortunes of Excelsior when he joined the club in the second round, and the Old Golds will go a long way if he is fit and firing every week.
FIVE REASONS TO DREAM
1. Size. You need to have some beef in the Heartland Championship, and North Otago should not lack in that area this season. A forward pack that stepped up in 2017 is well placed to be dominant again.
2. Talent. There are some damn good rugby players in this squad. This is a tough competition, but the Old Golds will field plenty of class.
3. Pre-season. Couldn’t have asked for more, really. North Otago competed well with the Southland Stags for 65 minutes, then put Otago Country to the sword.
4. The draw. Avoiding Wanganui is always a bonus. And the three hardest games appear to be on home soil.
5. They’re due. Have we mentioned it has been five years since North Otago was last in the Meads Cup? That is too long, for a union this ambitious.
Sue me for being optimistic.
I’m worried about our nasty neighbours, there are question marks over the No10 jersey, and I do wonder if North Otago is lacking one really dominant ball-carrying back.
But I’m saying the Old Golds WILL make the top four. And with an ounce of luck, they’re in a Meads Cup final, and anything is possible.