Rugby: Rock bottom - the worst Otago team of my lifetime

Brent Edwards
Brent Edwards
I always thought the worst moment in Otago rugby was in 1979 when it lost to South Canterbury in Timaru to finish bottom of the first division.

That was until Saturday, when Otago conceded almost 50 points to fellow cellar dweller Manawatu to again finish last.

And not just last, but last by eight points.

There was an escape route in 1979 when Steve Marfell, the Marlborough goal-kicker, missed a penalty from almost in front which would have condemned Otago to the second division.

There is no stay of execution this time.

Otago is down to the second tier and it is where, for the present, it belongs.

Several players have talked to me this season of their pride in playing for Otago but it has not translated into collective commitment on the field.

Otago was in the game at 17-21 on Saturday but it conceded four tries and 25 points in the last 25 minutes.

That doesn't indicate a happy, united team to me; rather, a dysfunctional one.

The season degenerated into a train wreck.

The high point was the 12-16 loss to Southland in the Ranfurly Shield challenge and, even then, it did not score a try.

Otago was excruciating to watch.

Its two wins, against Hawkes Bay and Tasman, came when it bored rather than battered the opposition into submission, when the Magpies and Makos sank to Otago's level.

Was this the worst Otago team of my lifetime? Sadly, the answer is yes.

It is reasonable to expect that semi-professional rugby players are competent in the basic skills, even if they lack game-breaking qualities, but most would not even have made the champion University A club teams of the mid-1990s.

They were making the same mistakes in the last game that they made in the first and they seemed to lack any sort of direction, rugby nous or collective will.

The 1979 team won only one of 10 NPC games but, overall, it won six and lost 11.

It had some quality players in Bevan Wilson, David Halligan, Wayne Graham, Ken Bloxham, Paul Sapsford, Rob Roy and Gary Seear.

It just lacked organisation and discipline, which Laurie Mains brought to Otago rugby when he took over as coach in 1983.

No-one disputes that the Otago team of the past season was limited, but neither can it be disputed that, had it made the best use of its resources, it could have avoided the ignominy of the wooden spoon.

It's been a sad, lingering decline - seventh, 10th, 10th and now 14th.

Clearly, there has to be some accountability from the previous Otago board which stared the deficiencies - in player retention, recruitment and development - in the face, and did precious little about them.

Only four Otago players - Tom Donnelly, Adam Thomson, Ben Smith and Alando Soakai - are assured of Highlanders selection and that emphasises the flaky state of the playing roster.

Many of the great Otago players of the past have expressed their concern to me in recent years about the state of the game in the province but I imagine even they were shocked by the lack of resolve against Manawatu.

In 1988, when Manawatu was last in Dunedin, Otago won 55-6.

And it was only six years ago that Manawatu was walloped 58-14 by North Otago in the old second division.

This was Otago rugby's darkest hour, make no mistake.

It's not pleasant to be a laughing stock, or an object of ridicule, among the rest of New Zealand.

Now, the focus will switch to the attempt to climb out of the second division.

It won't be easy but it has to be done if Otago rugby and the Highlanders are to be saved.

Egos have to be parked at the door and the hard work has to start today.

Brent Edwards is the ODT's former long-serving rugby writer and sports editor.


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