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Ralph Darling. Photo: Martin Hunter/Getty Images

He was the 2019 Meads Cup-winning hero, so could Ralph Darling be North Otago’s answer to beating South Canterbury tomorrow?

The veteran prop – who has tried to hang up his boots multiple times – was back at training with the North Otago squad this week, providing some much needed experience in the forward pack.

When the Oamaru Mail went to print, the final team had not been named for tomorrow’s clash against top-of-the-table South Canterbury, but North Otago coach Jason Forrest said it had been an “exciting week”, and the team was ready to take on the challenge against the “in-form” side.

“They’re the big dogs and we’re the underdogs, which is how we like it,” Forrest said.

“We’re just going to go about our business and prepare as well as we can to tackle the friendly neighbours across the bridge, I suppose you’d say.”

South Canterbury has not lost a game this year, and comes into the game at Whitestone Contracting Stadium off the back of a 34-12 win against Ngati-Porou East Coast.

North Otago, on the other hand, scrapped through with a 12-10 win against Poverty Bay last week that was far from the side’s best performance.

It was a “disappointing” performance, but the team took heart from its defensive efforts, Forrest said.

“That’s the best side of it. We defended really well and had no ball in the second half.”

The squad has taken another hit with injuries – in last weekend’s clash with Poverty Bay, No 8 Mosese Aho broke and dislocated his ankle, and winger Levi Atiga broke his eye socket.

However, prop Meli Kolinisau is back training, after getting injured in the first round, and Darling would also be providing support.

“Just trying to get some experience back in to help us out,” Forrest said.

Otago’s Charles Elton, who played in North Otago’s 2019 Meads Cup team, returned to the Old Golds last week, and would stay with the squad until Otago needed him again, Forrest said.

Otago lock Sean Jansen had also been training in Oamaru for the past few weeks, as loan lock Ben Morris had linked up with the Southland Stags for the rest of the National Provincial Championship.

With restrictions on crowd numbers lifted, North Otago Rugby was looking forward to welcoming sports fans back to Whitestone Contracting Stadium tomorrow.

The Government has clarified that at Alert Level 2, there are no restrictions on the number of spectators that can attend a sporting event, as long as everyone can safely stay 1m apart.

Admission to home games had previously been by pre-purchased ticket only, and spectators were placed in bubbles grandstand, and the other on the bank.

But gate sales are back tomorrow, and North Otago Rugby chief executive Colin Jackson hoped fans would turn out in force to support the home side against their near neighbours.

“It will make a huge difference,” Jackson said.

“Mind you, our North Otago Rugby Supporters group were there in their double decker bus last week and they made the noise of a normal crowd in support, it was fantastic.

“But it will be great just to be back to what we’re used to, what we call the ‘normal’.”

Games would continue to be live-streamed on Facebook “so everybody has an opportunity to watch the games”.

“We’re doing our best to offer it to everybody, but this Saturday, we’re saying, ‘come along and enjoy what should be a thrilling fixture’.”

Masks are not required at the game, but people would need to sign in at the stadium and keep socially distanced on the sidelines.

Kick-off is at 2.30pm.