Captain believes new-look Old Golds can shine

North Otago captain Sam Sturgess is looking forward to another crack at the Log o’ Wood. Photo:...
North Otago captain Sam Sturgess. Photo: Phil Janssen
Sam Sturgess thinks his kids are all right.

The North Otago captain is excited about the potential of his new-look team as it prepares for the second round of the delayed Heartland Championship and a road trip to Levin today.

‘‘New-look’’ is not a phrase used lightly about these Old Golds.

Remarkably, not a single player from the starting XV that won North Otago’s third Meads Cup in the 2019 final is in today’s squad.

The turnover is particularly noticeable in the backs, where halfback Jake Matthews — admittedly with a wise head on young shoulders — is the most experienced player, with seven caps.

Sturgess, who missed the end of the 2019 season due to injury, acknowledged getting such a new team firing in a short timeframe was challenging but he was excited to work with some talented newcomers.

‘‘You’ve just got to work at instilling some confidence into them.

‘‘Because we do back them. As forwards, we’re looking for direction from the backs sometimes, and the likes of Jake and Abel [Magalogo] and Levi [Emery], those guys are effectively running our game and I 100% back their decisions.

‘‘They are good players, and they just need to do what they do and we will follow them.

‘‘We’ve got some outstanding backs. They don’t have much time to settle in, but I’m right behind them and back them to the hilt.’’

North Otago greats Lemi Masoe and Ralph Darling are gone, and the workhorse forwards (Charles Elton, Woody Kirkwood, Jacob Coghlan, Josh Clark and Marcus Balchin) who proved so effective in the 2019 title run have also departed.

But rebuilding is a familiar theme in Heartland rugby, and Sturgess is optimistic this team can develop nicely.

‘‘If we can manage the workload and travel, which is new to some guys, and have a reasonable start, we could really fly.

‘‘There is ability across the park but we maybe just need to build some foundations first.’’

The Old Golds opened with a scratchy 39-31 win over an East Coast team that might be winless in seemingly forever but will be more competitive this season.

Sturgess said it was ‘‘quite odd’’ to be back in action after the lay-off due to lockdown.

‘‘We’d come off the back of a solid pre-season with a camp in Otematata, and a good grind-out win over Otago Country.

‘‘I felt we had some momentum, but we certainly had lost it with that three-week break. Without making excuses, it did feel like a pre-season game.’’

Signs of rustiness were understandable, but the important thing was North Otago banked five points.

‘‘I think we’ll be 100% better for that run. We’ve been able to iron out some creases in our own game, but we also know a little bit about our opposition this weekend as we have some footage now.

‘‘We just want to look at having more intensity and urgency at the breakdown. I felt we were beaten there, and it cost us some continuity last week, so that was a stark reminder that this is Heartland rugby.

‘‘It’s a little bit faster, and if you miss the clean-out, the ball has been stolen.

‘‘The whole game of rugby rests on the fact that you can win your own ball at the breakdown, so that’s been a big focus for us this week.’’

North Otago has made four changes to its starting XV to play Horowhenua-Kapiti.

Loan prop Tristan Fuli, youngster Oliver Kinzett, a lock by trade but starting today on the blindside, second five Taniela Samita and winger Levi Helleur-Atiga will all make their Heartland starting debuts.

Horowhenua-Kapiti has named Olympic sevens star Andrew Knewstubb at fullback, while former Southern back Hamish Buick is on the bench.

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