Ranfurly Shield: 22nd Time Lucky for Otago?
Otago, one of New Zealand's proudest rugby unions. Throughout the history of the province they have always been one of the top teams in the country along with the likes of Auckland, Canterbury, Wellington and Waikato.
The one thing that has eluded their grasp in recent years has been to get their hands on that precious log of wood known as the Ranfurly Shield.
Fifty-three years to be exact. Yes that's right, Otago haven't held the Ranfurly Shield since losing it to Taranaki in 1957.
In the interim it has become the one thing that means the most to the province and is certainly the trophy that most Otago supporters would cherish above all others, including the Rugby World Cup.
So many times they have come agonisingly close only to lose at the last minute. Last minute losses to Canterbury in 1994, 2000 and 2002 all spring to mind as being the worst heart-breakers for Otago in their 21 consecutive unsuccessful challenges.
On Saturday they get another shot at winning the fabled shield, this time in a local derby with Southland, who so famously won the shield off Canterbury at the end of last season.
The game will be Southland's first real defence after brushing aside North Otago and Wanganui in warm-up games. Spirit is high in the province and a sell-out crowd is expected for the clash. This will make the challenge harder than it will already be for Otago who seem to have all the odds stacked against them.
Who will win the Otago vs Southland Ranfurly Shield game?
Aside from their "Shield curse" they are taking on a very slick Southland outfit and are coming off one of the worst performances in Otago history. A 29-13 loss to last years wooden spooners, Counties-Manakau, showed just how far the province has slipped as they seemed unable to cross the line despite having all the possession and territory. Confidence is not high within the general public, but their is no doubt the players will be up for the game. They will need to look to their best players in Adam Thompson and Ben Smith to step up, while captain Alando Soakai will have to lead from the front and produce the rugby we know he's capable of.
Southland were simply superb in a resounding victory over Manawatu last week. They are a team on the rise boasting many of the competitions top players. Their front row of Jamie Mackintosh, Jason Rutledge and Chris King is the best in the competition and are well backed up with Josh Beckhuis, Joe Tuineau, Tim Boys, John Hardie and youngster Elliot Dixon, all very good players. This forward pack will be the key to Southland's game on Saturday and should be too dominant for an Otago pack who have looked to struggle in recent times.
The game will be huge and will mean the world to both provinces. This is what makes Shield games so hard to predict. As an Otago man my heart says Otago will win a tight encounter, but my head says Southland will be too strong up front, too dangerous out wide and too good in general.
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