The Log o’ Wood has this almost mystical power to lift a team, often against the odds, to great heights.
Otago showed just that in its stirring 35-27 Shield defence over Taranaki last Sunday under the Forsyth Barr Stadium roof.
First, some context.
The Razorbacks won the Shield in brilliant fashion on October 13 last year in Hamilton. But the Shield does not mean massive financial windfalls these days as it did in the amateur era, when crowds would flock to will on the holder.
Hence Otago started the 2019 Mitre 10 Cup Championship season with a bare minimum of 27 contracted players. It had retirements, defections and season-ending injuries with which to contend. Halfback Kayne Hammington was the only signing of note. Liam Coltman and Josh Ioane were on the fringes of the All Blacks.
It is a fair assumption that Otago will not be threatening the salary cap, though the union has needed to be fiscally prudent since facing the wall just a few years ago.
Things did not bode well when Ben Herring’s charges struggled to put away Meads Cup champs Thames Valley in Wanaka and North Otago in Oamaru in the two July Shield defences.
The Mitre 10 Cup kicked off in ignominy for the team, spanked by 50 in Tauranga at the hands of the Bay of Plenty Steamers. The Razorbacks went down narrowly in Napier to the Hawke’s Bay Magpies.
But the 3-1 Taranaki Bulls were going to be a different proposition. In form, laced with talent, hot to trot for the Shield, for which they have a proud history. Even diehard Otago fans must have wondered aloud that this tenure was about to grind to a halt at four defences. Josh Ioane and Liam Coltman were on All Blacks duty.
What followed turned into a Shield classic. Off the back of a tigerish breakdown, a dominant scrum, total commitment from 1-23, the X-factor of first five Vilimoni Koroi and Jona Nareki, plus the nous of the old warhorse Adam Thomson, Otago pulled off a rousing 35-27 victory. As an aside, is Thomson, who had never before experienced defending the Shield in his career, a chance for a Super Rugby contract in 2020?
It must be said that Taranaki butchered two tries, but Koroi brought all his renowned flair while slotting six from seven off the tee for 20 points. Otago’s rugged approach to the breakdown is exemplified by the fact that James Lentjes, not for the first time this season, had to come off the bench after Slade McDowall started.
The look of delight on Michael Collins’ face at fulltime showed a group that was tight and whom play for each other. Collins has battled a groin issue all season but there’s no I in team. The reaction of the whole team to Josh Hill winning a penalty at the breakdown was telling.
Just a few weeks ago, I wrote in Rugby News magazine that it would be a rugby miracle if Otago won promotion and held the Shield for the season. That miracle is a step closer at the halfway stage of the Mitre 10 Cup.
Tougher matches lie ahead, namely four straight crossover games, starting with Wellington in the capital this Sunday. On September 29, Otago welcomes Waikato for a rematch of the 2018 epic. Do not bet against Otago holding onto the Shield like grim death. If it does, then Canterbury on October 5 in the final Shield defence of 2019.
That would be some clash. It’s already been some tenure.