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Stags falter in workout

02 August 2004


If Southland was looking for things on which to work before the start of its NPC division one rugby campaign, then it found plenty in a poor 38-31 win over North Otago in Invercargill on Saturday.

The Stags led 26-12 at halftime, then 31-12 early in the second half, before being rudely exposed out wide as second division North Otago ran in three fine long-range tries to take much of the credit from the pre-season clash.

The Stags' biggest concern was their defence. Or lack of it.

Too many first-up tackles were missed for anyone's liking, least of all coaches Phil Young and Murray Brown.

They have been working overtime on their team's defensive patterns.

You would not have known that at Rugby Park on Saturday, just two weeks out from the start of the division one National Provincial Championship.

"That really does annoy Browny and me, the fact that we laid off tackles and that our alignment wasn't good at times," Young said.

"To see it unfold a few times today was disappointing."

North Otago took full advantage, revealing players with skill and pace who backed themselves to attack from anywhere.

From long-striding lock Noa Soqeta, to speedy flanker Ray Ofisa and its Fijian winger Watiseni Lotawa, North Otago had no shortage of game-breakers.

It was completely shut out by the Stags in the lineouts and scrums and had no answer to several stinging rolling mauls but North Otago often got out of trouble with adventurous counter-attacking raids.

It deservedly scored the try of the match, a pearler to replacement halfback Ryan McCarthy that started near his own goal-line in the 55th minute.

North Otago shone in the unstructured nature of the game, which really broke up in the final 20min as both teams emptied their reserves' bench.

It was not all gloom and doom for the Stags, who learned, like Otago last month, that 2003 second division semi-finalist North Otago is a tough nut to crack.

You could not fault the Stags' set-piece efforts, with locks Hoani Macdonald and Daniel Quate dominating the lineouts, and the scrum was much too strong.

Three times, though, the Stags gave away free kicks for pushing too early and that will be added to Young's list of areas on which to work.

The drives and rolling mauls also worked well, with flanker Hale T-Pole benefitting the most. His two tries on either side of halftime came from drives from attacking lineouts.

Slimmed-down No 8 Paul Miller was at the heart of most of the rolling mauls but the explosive nature to the loose-forward trio that flanker Ben Herring provided last season was not apparent.

The other Stags' tries went to hooker Jason Rutledge, after a long build-up, then a first for new wing Simon Jones after the forwards had rumbled 40m to leave North Otago's defence in disarray.

A fine individual try was scored by second five-eighth Bryan Milne, who also helped set up the last to replacement flanker Jeff Wright.

However, the patched-up backline seldom clicked, which was possibly understandable given the late injury-forced changes.

Milne was easily the sharpest of the Southland backs but some missed tackles and two spilled passes marred his game, while Jones showed his pace with two try-saving covering tackles.

James Wilson came through his fitness test well, switching with Richard Apanui between fullback and first five-eighth.

Quate looked good in lasting 68min in his first outing for two months and that will be a relief for everyone in the Stags set-up.

Young, of course, was trying to stay positive and so he must. The injuries badly affected his team's preparation and that showed during the game.

Young also wondered if the Stags would have been more mentally switched on if they had been playing a division one team.

We will know if that was part of the problem this Saturday when the Stags end their NPC buildup against Otago in Invercargill.