Hard work by ‘tightknit unit’ key to success

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Anticipation is building in Oamaru as North Otago prepares to take on Wairarapa Bush in the Meads Cup semifinal tomorrow. Oamaru Mail reporter Gus Patterson looks at the side’s history in the cup and asks some of North Otago rugby’s key stakeholders what it means to them to be back in the playoffs.

At a pre-season camp earlier this year, the North Otago Heartland squad came up with some goals for its 2019 campaign.

The first goal was to win the Hanan Shield.

In the first round of the regular competition, the Old Golds beat South Canterbury 26-20 in Timaru to reclaim the shield, then defended it against Mid Canterbury two weeks ago. It will now remain in the North Otago trophy cabinet for the summer.

The second goal was to finish in the top-four of the Heartland Championship and compete in the Meads Cup playoffs.

Not only has North Otago achieved that, it finished second on the table, just one point behind last year’s champion Thames Valley.

It now has the chance to push on for further glory.

This year’s North Otago side is a youthful one. Only Ralph Darling, Robbie Smith and Lemi Masoe remain from the 2013 team that qualified for the Meads Cup final, which was won by Mid Canterbury 26-20.

That game was played in gale-force winds. A North Otago drop kick to restart play ended up crossing the 10m line, then flew more than 60m in the opposite direction.

It marked the end of an era for North Otago, which had made the Meads Cup playoffs seven out of eight seasons since the competition’s inception in 2006 – and won two Meads Cup titles in 2007 and 2010.

Although North Otago had managed to make the Lochore Cup playoffs every year, and win it in 2016, there was a nagging sense of unfulfilled potential.

That has dissipated this season, and after a solid showing against Otago in a Ranfurly Shield challenge, North Otago has gone from strength to strength and has a real shot at adding the Meads Cup to the trophy cabinet.

North Otago coach Jason Forrest

North Otago coach Jason Forrest.

“It has been six years, it is absolutely massive. This group deserves to be where they are at the moment. It is not just about the team – it is about the supporters and the community as well. At the end of the day, nobody wants to play for the Lochore Cup, it is a trophy to finish fifth. It is exciting, hopefully we get a crowd there and we put a performance on the field that warrants us being where we are.”

Colin Jackson

North Otago Rugby Union chief executive Colin Jackson

“We are thrilled to bits. It is the culmination of a lot of hard work by our coaches and team management, and the players have become a very solid and tightknit unit – there is a brilliant culture in the team. North Otago rugby has got a smile on its face. The team has shown a lot of fortitude – it has had to battle hard and it fully deserves to be where it is at the moment.”

North Otago Supporters Club life member Mark Herron

Mark Herron

“It is huge. It has been a great season. We had a couple of setbacks with narrow losses, but it has been a great brand of rugby the boys have been playing. It is always an easy team to support, you take the bad with the good and have to stick with it. You can’t be at the top all the time. At times you have to rebuild a team and that is what has happened. There is a great culture in the team. We will be out in force this Saturday.”

 

North Otago captain Sam Sturgess

North Otago captain Sam Sturgess

“I think it is fantastic, not only from the players’ perspective in terms of being one of our goals, just to put a bit of pride back into the jersey. It is good to have the opportunity in front of us and at the end of the day it is in our own hands. We have a good bunch of guys who all get along really well – I think that helps. We enjoy each other’s company and play hard for each other. That has been a huge factor this year.”