AN EXPERIENCED head to link the backline and added bulk in the pack are the two key changes for Steelform Wanganui’s big southern expedition in the Pink Batts Heartland Championship regular season against North Otago in Oamaru tomorrow.
The only South Island game on the schedule and a rematch of the nailbiting 14-12 win in the 2014 Lochore Cup final, this clash represents the third tough test in as many weeks for the team to navigate and stay in contention for the Meads Cup play-offs.
Pull out the win and they can return for consecutive home games and a run of opposition teams whom can be approached with confidence.
Getting through these first three, it was an all but perfect start with Horowhenua-Kapiti defeated in Levin and Meads Cup heavyweights Mid Canterbury held right up until they snatched the game with a seven-pointer in injury time at Cooks Gardens on Saturday.
In the autopsy of that disappointment, coach Jason Caskey and his assistants have brought 26-game veteran Areta Lama into first-five and with Collegiate schoolboy Stephen Perofeta again available for his second match, Zyon Hekenui drops out of the squad.
“Areta’s a little bit more direction and a bit more experience and talk,” said Caskey. “Zyon hasn’t let us down but he [is] just not quite delivering in direction and taking the game by the scruff of the neck.
“The backs that are outside, you need someone with experience [to link].”
Perofeta was to be training at first-five last night to provide the cover option after making his first foray at fullback two weeks ago.
In the other change, 113kg Bryn Hudson has proved his fitness and will start at openside, with Fraser Hammond moving back to lock and Sam Madams dropping to the bench.
Expecting a typically big North Otago pack, Hudson has the power to counter-attack them, as he did so effectively in his Heartland debut last year at Cooks Gardens in Wanganui’s 20-15 win.
The other open spot remains at reserve prop, where veteran Brett Turner was bracketed with Tawhio Gupwell, subject to passing a fitness test on his ribs at training.
Determined to maintain the self belief within the squad which took him nearly an entire season to piece together last year, Caskey does not want private, or public, disconcert to take hold after the blow of the Mid Canterbury defeat.
The team went toe-to-toe with the defending champions and were it not for a few fumbles and referee calls that did not go their way, Wanganui would be heading south unbeaten.
“I thought, on the whole, playing a team that’s won the last two years, the guys did acquit themselves very well.
“We should have won it. We’re well aware of those lapses.
“There was a lot of good rugby played in between.”
Of concern remains Wanganui taking clear leads into the final quarter before conceding late tries.
Staying on the referee’s good side, as they proved they can do last year in the Lochore Cup play-offs, has also got to come back into vogue after three yellow cards so far and a 16-5 penalty count against them last Saturday.
Another key facet will be mentally handling travel and downtime in the deep south, which was an issue last year in the three losses in the South Island. In this case, the team departed at 8.30am this morning for the drive to Palmerston North airport, before they connect through to Dunedin and then taking the 90-minute bus drive back up the coast.
An 11am visit to Whitestone Contracting Stadium will be followed by lunch before the team goes back at 1pm ahead of the 2.30pm kick-off.
“Some of the guys are new to it that weren’t there last year,” said Caskey. “Three quarters of the guys have been down there before – that’s hopefully enough to pick the young ones up.”
North Otago have got through their games by the skin of their teeth, beating West Coast 17-16 and then Wairarapa Bush 18-16 last week under lights. The key man in both fixtures, as he was against Wanganui last year, is English-born first-five Ben Palmer, especially with the side no doubt missing their former captain Josh Clark.
Props Ralph Darling and Palenapa Mafi, lock Taua Limuloa and No8 Samisoni Tongotongo bring power and experience.
By Jared Smith – Wanganui Chronicle
|Last 10 Matches 2006- 2014|
|26-Oct-14||North Otago||12 – 14||Wanganui|
|6-Sep-14||Wanganui||20 – 15||North Otago|
|28-Sep-13||North Otago||27 – 15||Wanganui|
|29-Sep-12||Wanganui||39 – 22||North Otago|
|30-Oct-10||North Otago||39 – 18||Wanganui|
|9-Oct-10||North Otago||21 – 16||Wanganui|
|11-Oct-08||Wanganui||19 – 08||North Otago|
|20-Oct-07||North Otago||25 – 08||Wanganui|
|15-Sep-07||Wanganui||16 – 39||North Otago|
|30-Sep-06||North Otago||37 – 49||Wanganui|