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Steelform Whanganui know to be wary of North Otago in Lochore Cup final

By Jared Smith

Despite taking 33-point victory over their opponent just a fortnight ago, Steelform Whanganui have been to big dances enough times to know you don’t take any game for silverware for granted.

Having sent a thoughtful Thames Valley packing off to Timaru this weekend for the Meads Cup final on the back of a physical loss, Whanganui once again host the North Otago team they beat 45-12 on October 30 for Sunday’s Lochore Cup final.

It is the second time these rivals have met for the Lochore, with Whanganui winning 14-12 in Oamaru in 2014.

But this will be the highest-ranked game ever held for that silverware – between teams third and fourth on the Bunnings Heartland Championship points table, rather than the usual playoff for technical fifth, due to the truncated season caused by Covid.

Whanganui coach Jason Caskey has already made his feelings known about the decision to remove semifinals, thus denying his in-form team a chance at the Meads Cup, but felt the side’s eight-point away win over Thames Valley sent a clear message.

“They were pretty happy, probably a bit battered and bruised, but they played to get away with the result – a deserved win.

“They’ve just got to get through one more week and they can put their feet up.”

While starting as favourites, there are several veterans remaining who will remember the Meads Cup final at Cooks Gardens in 2016, when the squad just survived 20-18 against an underdog Buller team they had beaten by 28 points three weeks before.

Of more recent memory is this eerie similarity to 2019, where Whanganui won a bruising away semifinal against Thames Valley 20-15, but had little left in the tank when they played North Otago in the Meads Cup final, beaten 33-19.

OAMARU, NEW ZEALAND – OCTOBER 26: North Otago team mates celebrate with the Meads Cup 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)

“North Otago was up for a home final, so they were pretty pumped as well,” said Caskey.

“But that’s part of the challenge – making sure you back up from a good performance.

“We’ve been in a pretty good groove for the last 3-4 weeks.”

It’s a long journey from the deep south to Whanganui, but North Otago will bring a solid lineup with them, including captain-hooker Sam Sturgess and winger Hayden Todd, who were named in the NZ Heartland XV this week.

Selected for the first time in the national team, standout Whanganui prop Hadlee Hay-Horton did not train on Tuesday as he tries to get his injured knee ready in time for Sunday.

“He thinks he should be right to train on Thursday night,” said Caskey.

“He’s had a good season, so well deserved for that Heartland team.”

With an extra day’s recovery, Hay-Horton’s decision whether to play could be left until the start of the weekend, but Whanganui is relieved they will have the services of Viki Tofa, who due to his religious convictions does not usually play sport on Sundays.

“He talked to his family and father, come to the decision to play, if he can do church in the morning,” said Caskey.

Given the close nature of championship games, Caskey reminded the team this week that the scoreline last time was a little flattering to the home side, who scored three converted tries in the last eight minutes – one from an intercept and another from a breakaway on a reverse side restart kick.

Before that, North Otago had got back into the game, trailing 21-12, and spent long periods on attack.

“I said to them before the game, ‘it might take you 70 minutes to get on top of them,’ and that’s what it was,” said Caskey.

Kickoff will be 1.05pm at Cooks Gardens on Sunday.

OAMARU, NEW ZEALAND – OCTOBER 26: Lemi Masoe of North Otago is tackled 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)