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Club rugby is done for another season but the National Provincial Championship gets under way tomorrow. Sports writer Adrian Seconi starts the countdown with a chat to Southland Stags coach Dale MacLeod.
Southland and Otago have stacked up the grudges since the southern union split in two in 1887.
The long-established rivalry will add another chapter on Saturday when Otago hosts the derby at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
It is the national championship season-opener for both sides.
Otago won the warm-up 34-14 in Waikouaiti late last month. But in some ways, the battle started early this year.
The Stags have had a huge amount of turnover from last season and they have filled some of the gaps in the roster with players from Dunedin club rugby.
Taieri midfielder Matt Whaanga was one of the first to head south for an opportunity this season.
He will be in good company. Also confirmed in the Stags squad are Kaikorai lock Grayson Knapp and the Harbour pairing of second five Willie Tufui and utility forward Sione Misiloi.
There was also a bit of a wrestle over the services of two Green Island players, midfielder Ray Nu’u and speedy winger Michael Manson.
Nu’u spent three years in maroon but switched allegiances to Otago this season.
Southland was very keen on luring Manson south but Otago had him signed on a development contract and decided to hold on to him.
Former Highlanders halfback Josh Renton and playmaker Marty Banks have signed with Southland.
It has all added to the rich rivalry.
Stags coach Dale MacLeod was unapologetic for recruiting hard.
‘‘We lost about 17 or 18 boys from last year’s squad,’’ he said.
‘‘So you have to look to recruit from everywhere. We haven’t got a club comp that can sustain that sort of replacement.
‘‘The boys we got were boys looking for opportunities.
‘‘Looking at last year, we competed well against teams which had eight or less Super Rugby players. But any team that had more than 12 Super players, we really struggled.
‘‘So we thought, right, we need to get some experience players in key positions.
‘‘We also needed to get a bit of depth, which we’ve built this year. We just need them all on the pitch.’’
The Stags will not be at full strength for the derby. Lock Mike McKee, first five Marty McKenzie, fullback Josh Moorby and outside back Tevita Latu are unlikely starters.
‘‘We are probably a week away from where we need to be and then we’ll probably be able to have just about our top line-up on.’’
Southland boasted the best defensive record of any of the teams - Premiership or Championship - in the NPC last season.
Its tight five was seldom bested and the loose forward unit performed strongly. No 8 Tony Lamborn was immense.
Where Southland struggled was in finishing off opportunities to score.
‘‘I’m really excited about the group we’ve got. I believe if we gel and get into our work, we can be a genuine semifinalist.’’
Up first, though, is Otago and it will probably start as favourite to win the championship. It also has 19 Super Rugby players.
‘‘They are a very good side and I do rate them to be one of the teams to be really challenging for that promotion spot.
‘‘But Otago-Southland games are on the day and we have a group that is pretty motivated.
‘‘They’ll be motivated as well after us beating them last year, that’s for sure.’’
• TOMORROW: Matt Faddes returns; the leading contenders
• SATURDAY: Win or bust for Otago