Otago - NPC News - 2003

Otago does enough to finish top
By Brent Edwards

Seilala Mapusua continued his strong national championship form as Otago qualified top and
clinched a home semifinal with a solid win over Taranaki at Carisbrook yesterday. Mapusua scored the first try, his sixth of the season, and invariably made ground with his strong running as Otago gained its seventh win in nine round robin games.

This was a far from flawless performance - it lacked both intensity and accuracy at times - but Otago's five-tries-to-two win fairly reflected its superiority over dogged but limited opposition. The strapping Mapusua made some busting runs from centre and was the pick of a backline which only spasmodically achieved the fluency it sought.

Otago battered the Taranaki defence with strength rather than silky skills. Its first four tries were all from close range, three from line-out drives. But there was a reminder of the attacking talent in the team when Joe McDonnell pinched the ball from a maul, Willie Walker cut through and replacement Glen Horton dummied to his left before racing 40m to the posts. But this game was all about winning, claiming a play-off in front of its fans and providing a timely boost to the Otago Rugby Football Union coffers.

"We achieved what we wanted and now we'll look forward to Auckland next week," Otago captain Kelvin Middleton said later. "We're extremely pleased. If I'd known at the start of the season we'd qualify first, I would have been a happy man." Middleton described the match against Taranaki as "excellent preparation" for the semifinal against Auckland. "It was a wake-up call. It was hard and physical. Auckland had a fantastic win in Christchurch and we'll have to be on top of our game." Middleton acknowledged Otago was a few notches below its best yesterday as it struggled at times to combat a feisty Taranaki pack and a backline which showed more enterprise than in some previous games.

Left wing Shayne Austin scored two well-executed tries, while second five-eighth Bryce Robins exposed defensive deficiencies in the Otago midfield. Otago's progress was also impeded by the penalties it conceded on attack at rucks and mauls and it would not have been satisfied at the number of times it turned over possession. All Blacks contender Simon Maling made the line-out takes which led to Otago's first two tries and an encouraging return after a seven-week enforced layoff.

Otago put the game out of range at 25-6 9min into the second spell when Tony Brown wrestled over after seven phases, but Taranaki battled to the end and salvaged some respectability from what has been a disappointing campaign. Otago's line-out worked particularly well, its scrum was solid and Tom Willis and McDonnell were prominent in general as well as set play.

Danny Lee had a lively game from halfback and made an important try-saving tackle on centre Matt Harvey after Robins split the Otago defence. Horton added impact to the Otago attack and showed some clever skills when he came on for the last 17min, but the wings, Brad Fleming and Neil Brew, were not as gainfully employed as they would have hoped.

Andrew Hore, despite spending 10min in the sin bin for a professional foul, had a strong all-round game at hooker for Taranaki, as did prop Gordon Slater, lock Paul Tito and No 8 John Willis. Robins, who has had an injury-disrupted season, showed what a threat he could be in a Taranaki side which, at least, fired a few shots in its last game of the season.

Otago 39 (Tom Willis, 2, Seilala Mapusua, Tony Brown, Glen Horton tries; Willie Walker 4 conversions, 2 penalty goals), Taranaki 20 (Shayne Austin 2 tries; Daryl Lilley 2 conversions, 2 penalty goals).


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