North Otago looking for improved effort

North Otago will be hoping for an improved performance in its Heartland Championship campaign when it meets Buller in the first round of the competition this afternoon.

North Otago lost 33-31 in Westport last season after James Lash kicked a last-minute penalty in the regular-season match.

Buller went on to lose 18-17 to Horowhenua-Kapiti in the Meads Cup semifinals.

North Otago made it through to the semifinals of the Lochore Cup before losing 24-14 to West Coast.

Both sides have showed some promise in pre-season matches.

Buller has played two warm-up games, defeating Nelson Bays 26-24 and losing to Marlborough 22-21.

North Otago has lost to Southland 34-7 and beaten Otago Country 61-19.

Buller has plenty of experience in its side.

Luke Brownlee is playing his 20th season for Buller and, in that long career, has accumulated 167 games for Buller.

Longevity is part and parcel of Buller rugby.

Halfback Andrew Stephens will play his 95th game in the Buller jersey while loosehead prop Logan Mundy will play his 97th game.

Buller coach Craig Scanlan, who is also the New Zealand Heartland, coach believes his squad is a balanced one of a group of senior players interspersed with some new faces.

Key players in the backs will be the experienced inside-back combination of Stephens and Lash, who has already scored 413 points for his province.

"We've got a good balance of players like Brownlee who is in the team on ability and some younger players," Scanlan said.

"We've got a pretty talented line-up but it all depends on how quickly we can come together as the programme goes pretty quickly.

"You've got to hit the ground running in this competition. After all, we're only an amateur rugby competition.

"As far as our pack is, I'd rate it. We've got a bit of pace and a bit of size and a bit of intelligence. We'll be solid."

North Otago's forward pack will be aiming to build on its efforts against Southland and Otago Country.

In the second row, Jared Whitburn returns to lock alongside Pita Sinamoni while blindside flanker Junior Fakatoufifita gets his chance in the loose where he has impressed in his first couple of games.

Josh Buchan will start at first five-eighth and will be responsible for moving the side around the park.

Buchan has played mainly at fullback in his short career and it will be interesting to see how he fits into the No10 spot where his ability to distribute possession will be watched with interest.

The return of Simon Lillicama to the right wing will give the home side further attacking potential.

The match will be refereed by Hugh Reed, of Hawkes Bay.

North Otago v Buller

Oamaru, today, 2.30pm

North Otago: Hamish Slater, Simon Lillicama, Paul Tupai. Taina Tamou, Frank Kelly, Josh Buchan, Inoke Naufahu, Mikaele Mafi, Filipo Veamatahau, Pita Fakatoufifita, Pita Sinamoni, Jared Whitburn, Kelepi Funaki, Sam Sturgess, Ralph Darling Reserves: Jake Greenslade, Thomas Furnival, Anthony Amato, Matt Duff, Glen Sturgess, Tyler Burgess, Matt Vocea.

Buller: Robbie Malneek, Anthony Tailua, Michael Wells, Maifea Feso, Iliesa Ravudra, James Lash, Andrew Stephens, Jeff Lepa, Luke Brownlie, Samuel Godwin, Willis Scott, Robbie Bonisch, Jack Best, Anthony Ellis, Logan Mundy. Reserves: Ropati Matangi, Sean Eggers, Zach Walsh, Kahutia Parata, Corey Jenkins, Brad Collins, Sam Marris.

 - Terry O'Neill 

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