When the final whistle blew on Saturday, and the Old Golds became Meads Cup champions, coach Jason Forrest was “quite emotional”.
“You can feel a bit of weight just lift off your shoulders,” Forrest, who took over this year after a couple of years as assistant, said.
“But it’s all about [the players].”
The key to success for North Otago in Saturday’s Meads Cup final was always going to be fronting up physically against a big Wanganui team, and, at times, North Otago even managed to “bully the bullies”.
“We have been trying to create space for Patrick [Pati] and those boys all year, and I think we did that really well on Saturday.”
Often in finals, teams play the percentages, minimise risk and try to grind out a result. But North Otago blew Wanganui away to claim the 33-19 victory.
The game had barely started when tireless lock Charles Elton forced his way over to open the account.
Then the team really got to work.
Lemi Masoe put Adam Johnson in for a try, before Patrick Pati cut the Wanganui defence to ribbons and released Howard Packman for another.
Just before halftime, Wanganui scored to reduce North Otago’s lead to 22-7.
Then came the dropped goal that will go down in history as one of the greatest Heartland rugby moments.
Ralph Darling, playing possibly his last game for North Otago, received the ball 20m out from the goal line and, in a moment of genius, nailed a dropped goal to add three crucial points to North Otago’s tally before halftime.
Wanganui fought back into the game with two tries in the second half, but Smith added a try and a penalty which effectively sealed the game for the home side.
Every North Otago player stepped up for the final.
Jacob Coghlan and Elton worked themselves to a standstill, Smith and Mike Williams kept Wanganui pinned in its own half for long periods, while Pati and Taina Tamou looked dangerous every time they touched the ball.
Pati, in particular, looks to have a bright future ahead of him.
But it was the two veterans, Masoe and Darling, who led the way around the field. Masoe ran and tackled his heart out, and Darling ran, tackled, kicked, passed, threw the ball into the lineouts and captained the side to its third Meads Cup win.
Although Masoe and Darling had indicated they might hang up their boots, the nucleus of the squad would be back next year, Forrest said.
Loan players had added plenty to the side this year, and had indicated they would be keen to return if they were not picked for higher honours.
“Charles, Woody, Mike were outstanding. They wanted to be North Otago players, not just play for North Otago,” Forrest said.
North Otago Rugby Union chief executive Colin Jackson heaped praise on players, coaches and management for an outstanding season
“It was an 80-minute performance, which we had been threatening, but not quite achieved, and to do that in a final under the pressure that goes with finals rugby is a credit to everybody connected.”
He was pleased with the 1700-strong turnout and the “good atmosphere”.
As Meads Cup champion, North Otago will have another Ranfurly Shield challenge next year.