This was a similar result with four wins and a draw from their 11 games to other seasons, so while they didn't set the world on fire, they still deserve a pass mark.
We saw a new brand of Stags rugby which was exciting, but some great tries were overshadowed by some passive defence which saw the Stags finish as one of the worst teams defensively.
The win over Canterbury in Christchurch was brilliant and in some ways summed up their inconsistent season. The wins over Bay of Plenty and North Harbour saw them get out of the starting block quickly before a mid season slump. The draw against Hawke's Bay was disappointing, but also a great effort too. The Stags scored some great tries and looked more dangerous on attack than in the past. The win over Northland was exciting and very satisfying.
Lowlights How could a team beat Canterbury away and draw with Hawke's Bay on the road, yet come unstuck away from home against Manawatu and lose so heavily at home to Tasman, Counties and Otago? That Otago loss was particularly tough to stomach given that Otago weren't that good this season. It ends up that Manawatu, Tasman, Taranaki and a fast finishing Counties were impressive in 2014 and while you don't want to blame the draw, not playing Wellington and Waikato from the ITM Cup Premiership was a disadvantage.
The ITM Cup is about building momentum and confidence. This new Stags team showed glimpses of potential, especially on attack, but they lacked the aggressive defence required to be competitive.
As a long suffering Stags fan, I found it frustrating knowing that quality players like Jimmy Cowan and Marty McKenzie were starring for other teams when Southland had let them go. It would have been great to have that pair in the Southland Stags team. We also saw Robbie Robinson, Brayden Mitchell and Nick Barrett in action for other teams. The Stags could do with some depth at prop like Nick Barrett can provide. JP Koen despite playing Super Rugby is only solid, so we need another prop or two to add some steal.
There were plenty of new faces in the Southland Stags 2014 team and that probably doesn't help. I don't mind imported players making the Stags, assuming they earn their right to play for the team by playing club rugby or are a Super Rugby starter like Lima Sopoaga.
It was interesting seeing how the Stags struggled at set pieces against teams with less experienced and Super Rugby players like Manawatu.
The ITM Cup seems to unearth plenty of new talent. Counties Manukau unearthed so many good young players a few seasons back, last year it was Tasman and this year Northland and Manawatu were impressive with teams featuring mainly local players and very few Super Rugby players. It was hard to stomach the Southland pack getting pushed back by other teams with less proven Super Rugby players like Manawatu and Otago.
Unfortunately I wonder if Southland club rugby has enough good players coming through to form a competitive ITM Cup squad from only local players? It was funny that by the end of the season it was two local guys scoring tries on the wings despite all of the new imported outside backs coming into the squad.
There were a few disappointing performances during the ITM Cup semi-finals. I thought that Stags legend Jamie Mackintosh was found wanting. Whoppa has been a loyal servant, character and great leader, but he gives away too many penalties, including in the scrums and was also found out defensively a bit. Whoppa does provide plenty of experience and leadership, I just think that ITM Cup seems to have got increasingly fast and open which may not suit him. Don't get me wrong, the guy is a legend as a player, if only there was a way to lower his penalty count, although he probably does a lot behind the scenes to help the team which aren't seen by most fans. It must be tough being Whoppa's size at times, so maybe it is just some technical tweaks that are required.
I also wonder about the future of Scott Eade the first five turned halfback. He just seems too small on the field and was exposed in defence several times in the ITM Cup semi-final.
He has also been guilty of turning the ball over plenty of times this season with charged down kicks, kicking the ball out on the full from outside his 22 and handling errors when picking the ball up at rucks, It is hard to know if it is the forwards fault or his lack of experience at halfback is costing him. He has serious gas though, but it is hard to know how long to perservere with him as a halfback.
Eade joins some two or three year Stags who haven't kicked on in their careers. We took for granted in the past when guys like Josh Bekhuis, Tim Boys and John Hardie strolled into Super Rugby, but players like Cardiff Vaega, Willis Halaholo, Michael Fatialofa and Scott Eade are doing alright at ITM Cup level, but aren't doing enough to get Super Rugby contracts. Vaega had a season at the Hurricanes but didn't really make that step up.
Given Southland's history in producing quality halfbacks and front row forwards, I am hoping that there are some new Southlanders coming through in those positions, because seeing Southland pushed around at ITM Cup Championship level didn't sit well with me.
According to Opta Statistics, the Stags were towards the bottom of all 14 teams for carries, metres, ruck and scrum percentages although their tackling percentage and lineouts were midtable.
Good points -
Lima Sopoaga is a class act and was a great recruit. The loose forward trio of Dixon, Boys and Hardy were also impressive along with Bekhuis. Tuapati finally established himself at ITM Cup level, although it was a shame that Rutledge was injured. In the backs, Halaholo was impressive early on in the season, but was prone to defensive errors, while Mark Jackman was one of the better new Stags and Junior Ngaluafe finally fulfilled his potential. Keanu Kahakura and Bryan Milne ended up on the wings and played well while being at different stages of their careers. Whoppa's leadership and decision making was generally pretty good. The Stags won some entertaining games.
Hopefully this team stays together for next season and can improve on their performance for ITM Cup 2015.
I hope I haven't been too harsh on the Southland Stags. I love this team and want to see them do well. It is also difficult watching ITM Cup after watching the All Blacks playing as sometimes the gap in ability is heightened.