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Leading from the front . . . After missing most of the club season through injury, Sam Strugess made a timely return to action for North Otago. PHOTO: PHIL JANSSEN

North Otago’s final game summed up the season.

An inexperienced but brave Old Golds side lost to South Canterbury 37-29 in Timaru on Saturday.

While it meant North Otago recorded just one win in 2020, almost a full squad of new players was blooded, and the side showed plenty of improvement over the course of the season.

On the other hand, South Canterbury had a very similar squad to its 2019 Heartland team and posed a very physical challenge.

North Otago came close to an upset on Saturday. After trailing 22-8 at halftime, tries to midfielder Samuel Tatapu and forward Cameron Rowland brought the Old Golds within three points of the home side, at 32-29, before South Canterbury scored a late try to seal the win.

North Otago coach Jason Forrest said his side put in a gutsy effort to come back and the result could have gone either way.

“We didn’t quite get there but I couldn’t be happier about how the boys put themselves to the task,” Forrest said.

“At 32-29, South Canterbury would have been pinching their bum cheeks, that’s for sure.

“It would have been nice to win, but we are taking a massive amount of confidence out of it.”

Due to injuries, North Otago had to call in several players for Saturday’s game, but they proved more than capable.

Excelsior flanker Tayne Russell looked sharp on the wing, as did ageless fullback Lemi Masoe who was as physical as ever.

Tyler Burgess and Jake Day, who joined the team midway through the season, played well, as did young locks Blake Welsh and Oliver Kinzett. Flanker Toni Taufa also had an outstanding 2020.

Because of the every-game-counts pressure of the Heartland Championship in pre-Covid years, North Otago usually looks to bring in loan players. This year, it had the luxury of developing local players over the course of the season, Forrest said.

“They have improved every week and that’s all we can ask of them,” he said.

“There was a bit of a turning point against Mid Canterbury in the last 10 minutes of the game.

“There was a mindset change and it really felt like the year before, in regards to everyone being on the same page.

“We are all heading in the same direction .. it took a while but they [now] understand what it takes to play Heartland rugby.”

Senior players Junior Fakatoufifita, Marcus Balchin, Sam Sturgess and Kelepi Funaki had led the way all year, Forrest said.

Losing to South Canterbury two times in one year was something the North Otago would be desperate to right next year, and the scenes of South Canterbury representing itself with its trophies would niggle away at players during the off-season, he said.

As the Meads Cup champion, North Otago should have another chance at the Ranfurly Shield next year.