Southland 22 – 33 Otago
What a great day for Otago rugby. In the space of three hours today, the Southern side announced themselves as contenders in the ITM Championship with a convincing win over the Southland Stags and discovered they will be odds-on favourites to host the Ranfurly Shield in two weeks’ time with an unexpected chance to pinch the trophy off Hawke’s Bay in Napier.
It was a scintillating southern derby, the 238th meeting between the two sides, and ultimately won by the team with the most fight. After a free flowing open start, it became tight and tense in the second half and Otago stood tallest in the small moments that matters.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. After cruising at 33-17 with 25 minutes to go Otago made it a nervy finish when Thomas Franklin got sent to the bin for a stray elbow and the home side then conceded a try.
Thankfully for Otago, the numbers were leveled moments later when the referee made a bizarre call to sinbin Southland No 8 Elliot Dixon for using a knee in a tackle, despite replays showing no such offence.
It was a pivotal call that took the power out of Southland’s late game counter punch and Otago were able to navigate a scrappy final 20 minutes to get over the line comfortably with an eleven-point buffer.
The TAB couldn’t separate the two teams pre-match and they both showed enough to suggest they will be thereabouts come the end of the season.
Otago defended resolutely and showed glimpses of brilliance across the backline while Southland looked dangerous whenever they ran the ball.
The first half lived up to the great Southern hype. Four tries in the first 30 minutes set a blazing pace and the quality of play, and refereeing (bar one strange call), was pleasant on the eye.
Southland first-five Lima Sopoaga was the standout performer. His bag of tricks included subtle no look passes, explosive pace, precision kicking and a sexy double-pump, cut-out pass.
Rugby Southland are financially limited but their off-season decision to recruit a player of Sopoaga’s class to run the show at first five-eighth was a great one, and it is a formula that looks like it will have rich rewards.
The first 40 minutes also served up two try of the year contenders. Southland’s second try scored by Mark Jackman showed teamwork and timing of the highest order, while Otago’s first, scored by Teihorangi Walden was created by one of the smartest chip and chases from Trent Renata you are likely to see all season.
Otago first-five Hayden Parker had a wild night with the boot, kicking seven goals, but also hitting the post and missing on two occasions.
Otago 33 (Teihorangi Walden, Michael Collins, Josh Renton tries, Hayden Parker 4 pen, 3 con)
Southland 22 (Willis Halaholo, Mark Jackman, John Hardie tries, Lima Sopoaga 2 con, 1 pen)