Otago up against it ... or is it?

Trying to conquer an unbeaten team in a final normally feels like a near-impossible task.

There may be an element of that when Otago steps on to the field to face Taranaki in Inglewood today. But there is also a feeling that this is a game Otago has every chance of winning.

It is a team in form and it

is coming off an electric display in last week’s semifinal.

There are plenty of stars — think the likes of Liam Coltman and Josh Ioane — who have been on the big stage before.

If ever a team was considered a good chance of upsetting an undefeated finalist, this would be it.

Despite that, Taranaki remains a potent threat. It has shown its versatility all season.

Last weekend, it ground its way to a tight win in awful conditions against Southland.

On a dry track, it is equally adept at playing an open game, having racked up some big scores against quality opponents.

It is not a stretch to say Taranaki is the best team in either NPC division this year, despite being stranded in
the Championship.

That was not lost on Otago captain James Lentjes, although he was embracing the underdog status.

‘‘Much the same,’’ he said when asked what he was expecting.

‘‘It’s obviously proven it works, they’ve won eight games out of eight.

‘‘But that puts the pressure on them, I believe.

‘‘We only lost to them by one try last time and we didn’t play very well.

‘‘They’re a big physical team. If we match their physicality and get our backs finishing like they have been, we’ll be all right.’’

That last game between the teams — a 30-23 win for Taranaki at Forsyth Barr Stadium — was the last of three losses in a row for Otago.

In the middle of that stretch was Otago’s extended break during the lockdown and competition restart, from which the team emerged rusty.

On that night it was a handful of missed tackles, as well as the inability to execute as it pounded away at the Taranaki line in the dying minutes, that cost it.

Otago has lost just once since then, by two points to Premiership finalists Waikato.

Taranaki had star openside flanker Lachlan Boshier then too. He has since left to take up a contract in Japan.

There are still plenty of other threats among the Taranaki line-up, though.

No 8 Pita Gus Sowakula is among the most dynamic ball runners in the competition, complete with the ball skills to be a threat offloading in the tackle.

He headlines what is a very strong forward pack.

Its backline has plenty of lethal threats, notably winger Kini Naholo, while former Otago midfielder Tei Walden provides a solid hand at second five.

Last week’s display against Manawatu suggests Otago should have every chance of matching Taranaki up front.

Led by its strong front row of Coltman, Josh Hohneck and Jermaine Ainsley, it dismantled Manawatu’s scrum and was solid all night in the open.

Quelling the Taranaki threats and not falling off tackles will be key too.

The Otago defence has come a long way in the past month, though, and at times it has tackled its way to victories.

Otago has shown, too, both how strong it can be up front and how lethal it can be out wide.

This is a team playing with confidence as well.

Lentjes said its mindset was to keep improving each week and it was ready to take that one more step.

‘‘I wouldn’t say we’re nervous,’’ he said.

‘‘We’re excited to be in the final. But we’ve earned the right to be there, there’s no two ways about that.

‘‘The best two teams are playing in the final, that’s the way it should be.

‘‘We’re confident if we can get our game going, we’ll get the result.’’

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