North Otago’s build up to the Heartland season has begun.
The Old Golds have headed to Taupo to take on King Country for the Maroon and Gold Cup in their first pre-season hit out tomorrow.
Heartland coach Jason Forrest said it was exciting for the team to finally get a game.
Players have had limited ‘‘grass time’’, with grounds being affected by rain and club rugby wrapping up in early July.
King Country was tipped to be strong this year and Forrest wanted to see his players put under pressure.
‘‘They haven’t had any pressure on them,’’ he said.
‘‘We know it’s not going to be perfect this weekend but we’ve put things in place and we just want to see how guys come up to that next level, really.’’
The 23-strong North Otago side named for tomorrow’s game also includes Otago loan players Rohan Wingham, a tight-head prop, and Jermaine Pepe.
Hayden Tisdall has been named as captain for the first time and Forrest was rapt to give him the opportunity.
‘‘[I’m] pretty stoked for him, actually. He leads by actions and that’s what he does on the field. ‘‘His form over the club season was phenomenal.’’
Forrest and assistant coach Ralph Darling put the players through their paces with a two-day training camp in Kurow last weekend. It was a ‘‘really tough’’ few days but Forrest was impressed with his team’s attitude.
‘‘Some of it wasn’t easy, but there was no shying away from it.
‘‘That’s what we want — we want to build that environment . . . we go to war when we go to war and we have fun when we have fun.’’
Players who had worked hard over the past six weeks would get their chance to prove themselves in tomorrow’s match, he said.
‘‘It’s exciting. We have x-factor right across the board.
‘‘It’s just making sure how we go about that and making sure we get the best out of our players and have fun along the way.’’
The Maroon and Gold Cup, named because of both unions’ shared ties to those two colours, was first introduced last year. North Otago beat King Country 27-19 in June in a pre-season clash, and then again in November, 36-5, to lock the trophy away for the summer.
New Zealand Rugby announced last week that one Heartland match each week will be televised live on Sky and be available on Prime.
North Otago is fortunate to have two televised games, against Wairarapa Bush in Masterton on August 21 and against Horowhenua Kapiti in Oamaru on September 17.
Forrest said it was ‘‘awesome’’ for the players and an opportunity to lift the competition’s profile.
‘‘It’s huge for what we’re about,’’ he said.
‘‘Great exposure for out players that want to go to that next level. Especially on away trips, friends and family get to watch it.
‘‘It’s about time that . . . Heartland’s getting some reward for all that we put in that goes unnoticed, I suppose.’’
North Otago Rugby chief executive Colin Jackson said it would provide great exposure for the union’s sponsors.
‘‘The sponsors that are on our playing uniform are loyal, long-term sponsors, so to be able to give them something back . . . is fantastic,’’ Jackson said.