Otago midfielders on opposite sides in club final

Otago centres Matt Whaanga (Taieri) (left) and Giovanni Leituala (University) will battle each...
Otago centres Matt Whaanga (Taieri) (left) and Giovanni Leituala (University) will battle each other in the club final today. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON
Two centres — one trophy.

Otago midfielders Matt Whaanga and Giovanni Leituala will line up opposite each other in the Dunedin club final at Forsyth Barr Stadium today.

Whaanga is the more experienced of the two. The 23-year-old Taieri No13 remembers all too well what happened when Taieri and University met in the final last year.

Taieri fought its way back from a 31-3 deficit at halftime to draw level with five minutes remaining.

But University prop Angus Williams barged over in the last minute of the game to seal a 38-31 win.

"We sort of let that one slip," Whaanga said.

"That has definitely been in the back of our minds this week."

Leituala is in his first year of premier rugby. He was co-captain of King’s High School First XV last year and has had a solid year for University.

He is the side’s goal kicker and knocked over some crucial shots to help his side prevail 24-22 in a tense semifinal against Southern at Logan Park last week.

It was a good boost ahead of the campaign finale.

"I’m real excited and I can’t wait. We’ve prepared really well this week and hopefully it goes well," Leituala said.

While the players will be marking each other and essentially competing for the same spot in the Otago team, neither views the match as a chance to score points in some sort of personal duel.

And they will perform quite different roles.

Taieri has more size and will look to attack in the middle of the park with its bigger ball runners.

Defence has also been a key plank in its game plan this season and Whaanga, who is co-captaining the side with robust flanker Nick Henderson, will lead the effort in that area.

"We’ve relied on our defence to get us home a couple of times this year and that could be crucial in the final.

"Me and Kori Rupene have played a few games together now and we’ve got a good combination going [in the midfield]. And we’ve got other guys we can count on to come in and help out."

Whaanga is the third generation of his family to play for the club. His grandfather, Jim Whaanga, was a coach and player at Taieri and his father, Adam Whaanga, has both played and coached at Taieri as well.

"So I understand the club culture and how much it means to the community," he said.

Leituala (18) will be part of a backline which will try to operate with more width. He will be trying to shovel the ball out to the likes of fullback Jermaine Pepe, who can be a real match-winner.

Kieran McClea has shown some nice touches on the right flank as well.

University is chasing a third consecutive title, while Taieri is hoping to claim its first banner since 2014.

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