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The Southland Stags are facing a huge injury crisis before the NPC even begins. The team was always going to struggle to match the dizzy heights of being semi-final contenders last year after losing their best performers from that campaign. This problem has been compounded by injuries to key players in the lead up to their first NPC game on Saturday 14th August against Waikato.

New five-eigth signing, Andy Miller, will miss the start of the NPC and could be out for at least three weeks with a groin strain.He arrives in Invercargill today, where his condition will be assessed by the Stags' medical team. RugbySouthland CEO is desperately chasing a replacement. Clark would not reveal the player's identity but said he had been a Super 12 professional for "a number of years" , who could play first or second five-eighth and was a good goalkicker. Clark sounded confident of signing the player by tomorrow, which would be timely because of last week's season-ending injury to centre Gavin Williams and now Miller's injury."We need to find someone who is experienced enough to take this team around the park, help Clarke (Dermody, new Stags' captain) with the leadership and kick our goals," Clark said."You don't find that sort of person in New Zealand at the moment. So we're not dealing in New Zealand."The Stags desperately need a proven backline pivot and goalkicker, as they have been areas of concern in recent seasons. Miller appeared to be the answer, having shown glimpses of his class in a close loss to Canterbury in his Stags debut in Christchurch last month.

He injured his groin playing in the Bay of Plenty club final last Saturday, being forced out of the game at halftime. Clark rubbished rumours suggesting Miller would be out for the whole of the division one national provincial championship."We think he will be out for three weeks but until the doctor sees him we don't know. It could be a lot less but it's definitely not the season. "Miller's injury is not the only bad news facing the Stags just a week out from their NPC opener against Waikato in Hamilton. In-form lock Hoani Macdonald will be out for a month after dislocating the thumb on his left hand in last Saturday's win over North Otago. Macdonald has been replaced by Woodlands lock Roger Newell but he will play for the Southland Development team against its Otago counterpart in Invercargill this Saturday. That will be the curtain-raiser to the Stags' final pre-NPC hit-out against Otago with Daniel Quate and Nathan George set to lock the Southland scrum. The Stags team for that game was supposed to be named yesterday but because of injury worries it will now be named tomorrow. One certainty for the game squad will be Dunedin-based three-quarter Mike McGuire.The 21-year-old played well for University A in its Dunedin club final win over Kaikorai last Saturday and is on trial for the Stags this week.

Players missing from last year are:

Captain Steve Jackson - arguably the most consistent lineout foward in the NPC and the heart of Southlands mighty forward pack in recent years. Released under strange circumstances amid rumours of indiscretions

Ben Herring - the superstar. The best 'Southland' player since Goldie who single handedly kept Southland in games for two years. Roger Clark should have resigned after losing Benny. I am sure most fans in Southland would have contributed money to keep him in Invers if that was what was needed

Seremaia Bai - signed an overseas contract after missing out on the Highlanders. Performed adequately for the Islanders in their recent matches. Good to see his goal-kicking has not changed

Hayden Martine - one of the stars of the 2003 campaign. His defence could be absolutely terrible at times, ie his 'tackle' on Tanivula in the Auckland game, but was one of the few backs who could break the line with great timing and deceptive strength. Signed overseas contract

Graydon Staniforth - solid fullback for the Stags in 2003. Another to sign a overseas contract

James Jowsey - average player. No real loss

Pita Wilson & Brett Roberts - at this stage both players have not been selected though Wilson is bound to get a run at some stage