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North Otago has never had any easy games when it has lined up against Buller at Victoria Square.
Weather forecasts for today predict rain, at times heavy, but the surface at Westport is firm, which should encourage both teams to play running rugby. North Otago currently has, after two rounds, a win and a loss giving it six points, in seventh place.
North Otago’s loss to Horowhenua Kapiti raised some concerns but a week can be a long time in rugby and North Otago showed marked improvement on the paddock with its scrum and lineout ensuring it had plenty of possession against Mid Canterbury last weekend.
Tighthead prop Meli Kolinisau was a force with the ball in hand, lock Tom McDonald continues to expand his game showing increased mobility around the paddock while No 8 Mika Mafi is rapidly fitting into North Otago’s pattern.
In the backs confidence is growing, although Robbie Smith has had a slower start than normal while first five-eighth Dan Lewis was beginning to expose some skills he kept hidden in club rugby. However, a rolled ankle has denied him a place in this afternoon’s match.
At fullback Josh Buchan fitted quickly into his position and used his vision and pace to set up North Otago’s final try against Mid Canterbury.
But the game against Buller might test the depth in this North Otago side .
The only change in the forward pack sees the openside flank position taken by Junior Fakitoufifita with regular openside flanker Matt Duff drops to the bench. In the backs Athletic club’s Antini Brown gets an opportunity to show his ability with Lewis out with injury.
Buller has had a perfect start to its season defeating South Canterbury (27-24) and West Coast (34-19).
Key players for Buller are the inside backs duo of halfback Andrew Stephens who will play his eighty-eighth game for Buller and aggressive first five-eighth James Lash, and openside flanker Blair McIlroy a loan player who plays with the Canterbury club, Darfield, and who will be playing his fifty-third game for Buller.
In the third round of the Heartland competition East Coast will host West Coast in Tuatoria, Horowhenua-Kapiti also unbeaten, meets Thames Valley in Levin, King Country will be after its first win when it hosts Wairarapa Bush in Te Kuiti.
Mid Canterbury hosts South Canterbury with only one point separating the two sides while Wanganui which struggled to hold out Thames Valley last week, plays Poverty Bay.
By Terry O’Neill
Westport, today, 2.30pm
North Otago: Josh Buchan, Aaron Martin, Sala Halaleva, Lemi Masoe, Oscar Pamment, Antini Brown, Robbie Smith, Mika Mafi, Junior Fakatoufifita, Filipo Veamatahau, Josh Clark, Tom McDonald, Kolinisau Melikisua, Sam Sturgess, Ralph Darling. Reserves: Joe Pickett, Petelo Pouhila, Morgan Dawes, Matt Duff, Sefo Maake, Adam Johnson, one to be added.
Buller: Anthony Tailua, Scott Neighbours, Joshua Tuadriva, Isaac Hogarth, Illiesa Ravudra, James Lash, Andrew Stephens, David Egelstaff, Blair McIlroy, Luke Watson, Jeff Lepa, Robbie Bonisch, Anthony Ellis, Jareth Mckay, Stephen Crackett. Reserves: Glen Duncan, Philip Beveridge, Joshua Hedley, Kahu Parata, Sam Marris, Tim Manawatu, Petaia Saukuru.