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Ghosts of 2019: Time to run it back with North Otago

By Jared Smith

Revenge is not the best motivation, but it could prove very useful to Steelform Whanganui as they prepare to run back their last Meads Cup final appearance against North Otago on Saturday.

While last weekend’s loss to South Canterbury was a sucker punch in this truncated Bunnings Heartland Championship season without semifinals – Whanganui’s bare Meads hopes now resting on winless King Country upsetting their unbeaten neighbours Thames Valley – there is still the opportunity to host the Lochore Cup final.

With an identical 4-2 record, North Otago sit fourth and with a straight-forward home game against King Country to finish, want to set themselves up for a shot at the silverware, while another loss could see Whanganui miss the top four altogether.

They have seen North Otago deny them before.

In 2019, Whanganui made Heartland history where after losing their opening three games, they still won their way into the Meads Cup final – picking up six wins on the trot.

However, physically and mentality, the fuel tank was near empty as they went back to Oamaru for the second time that season, and in the game that mattered most, North Otago pulled away for a comfortable 33-19 win and their union’s third Meads Cup.

Eight members of the current Whanganui squad were in the team that day, seven of whom will play this match.

“Definitely, there’s a bit to play for,” said coach Jason Caskey, who took the temperature of the squad at Tuesday night training.

“I said to them, ‘you’ve got to put it aside, don’t know what’s going to happen’.

“You never know. Thames Valley could go into lockdown, and then third becomes second.

“You could also finish fifth or sixth, if you throw your toys and don’t want to carry on.

“There’s plenty to play for, plenty of reasons. They want to come in as high [on the table] as we can.”

Fifth-placed Mid-Canterbury will play the tough away derby with South Canterbury, so should the table leaders do the business again, a win for Whanganui gives them the leg-up for Lochore priority.

“Ideal world, that’s what we’re hoping for – but we can only control one of them,” said Caskey.

Adding to the prospect of payback is the return of the North Otago legend who helped shatter Whanganui that day in 2019.

Game centenarian and former skipper Ralph Darling, who famously kicked a drop goal in the final, had been enjoying representative retirement until being talked into a comeback by coach Jason Forrest two weeks ago, being one of the try-scorers last Saturday in the 45-26 win over Buller.

OAMARU, NEW ZEALAND – OCTOBER 26: Ralph Darling of North Otago kicks a drop goal during the Mitre 10 Heartland Championship Meads Cup Final between North Otago and Wanganui at Whitestone Contracting Stadium on October 26, 2019 in Oamaru, New Zealand. (Photo by Martin Hunter/Getty Images)

“There’s a few old players, but he’s not as old as the Buller fella,” said Caskey of 47-year-old Phil Beveridge, another prop making a comeback.

Darling adds to an already formidable front row in hooker Sam Sturgess and another NZ Heartland rep in Meli Kolinisau.

Of concern to Whanganui is their prop Gabriel Hakaraia has been feeling unwell and didn’t train Tuesday, taking Thursday training to decide his status, which means veteran Viki Tofa could need to step up alongside Hadlee Hay-Horton and Jack van Bussel.

The very good news is that talented fullback Te Rangatira Waitokia has been cleared to play after his fractured jaw in Round 2.

But Waitokia’s welcome return is balanced with workhorse lock Josh Lane being rested after a heavy knock to his shoulder and neck last weekend, which added to the wear-and-tear Lane has suffered over a long season where he took on so much responsibility at club and Heartland level.

“I told him, ‘even coming off the bench as well, it’s going to get banged up again’,” said Caskey.

Canterbury import Mathew Taula-Fili will therefore make his first start in partnership with Peter-Travis Hay-Horton, while Lane’s role this week will be helping his young clubmate Josefa Rokotakala get ready for his Heartland debut, coming off the bench.

Integrating new lineout personnel has not been the only focus at training this week.

The tough aspect of the South Canterbury loss was Whanganui had the better share of possession and territory, but a handful of crucial mistakes were immediately turned into three 60m tries by the home side.

Caskey said extra pressure saw his side go away from tip passes or trying to put the support players in space.

“They spooked us a little bit and we got stuck in our club habits.

“It’s a bit of a work-on to make sure we’re taking the right options in our phase play.”

The coach is hoping for a good crowd as is allowed under Level 2 conditions at Cooks Gardens, for what is Whanganui’s last home game of the round-robin, and perhaps the season.

Kickoff is 2.30pm.

Wanganui vs North Otago, rugby at Whanganui’s Cook Gardens. 14 October 2017 Wanganui Chronicle Photograph by Stuart Munro.
WGP 18Oct17 –
WGP 21Apr18 – A scrum sets in a game between Wanganui and North Otago at Cooks Gardens last year. PHOTO/STUART MUNRO