They may be one of the smallest provinces by population in the ITM Cup, but the Southland Stags have produced some great All Blacks like Justin Marshall, Jeff Wilson, Simon Culhane and even the All Blacks first ever Number Eight Tommy Metcalfe, but what has happened to the Southland Stags in the ITM Cup Championship 2014?
If you rewind only five years ago, Southland won the Ranfurly Shield twice and even made the semi-finals of the first division, it kind of gave long suffering fans like myself hope and a chance to raise our expectations from one win a season to several wins a season and the fact the Stags would actually be able to compete finally with the big boys of New Zealand rugby like Auckland, Waikato, Wellington and even Canterbury.
The Stags used to have good defence and be tough to beat at home. There are five current Southland Stags forwards who were part of that budget blowout team from five years ago in Jamie Mackintosh, Josh Bekhuis, Tim Boys, John Hardie and Elliot Dixon. These guys have all played Super Rugby. This makes me wonder what has changed when you consider that these and some of the other players in there are quality players.
The backline might have something to do with it. The current Stags backline is full of new faces, but they are full of potential and look threatening, but we still aren't winning. First five eighth Lima Sopoaga is a starting first five eighth at Super Rugby level and is a quality player. The Stags miss one of the Cowans at halfback, while the rest of the backline looks dangerous, but looking back at that Stags team who won the Ranfurly Shield twice, the current team has no Super Rugby starting players in the backline besides Sopoaga. Only Cardiff Vaega has a Super Rugby contract. The interesting thing with the former Stags backline is that it didn't have many rockstars, but in guys like Robbie Robinson, James Wilson, Matt Saunders, Kenny Lynn, Glenn Horton and Kade Poki, it was a backline of Super Rugby quality, even though it was hardly lethal, but they were defensively sound. I also neglected to include the name Mark Wells who I think deserved more kudos than he got. Unfortunately that team was living outside their means.
I mention defence, because that has been the main problem with the Southland Stags 2014 ITM Cup campaign. They have conceded over 30 points per game. Their defence seems to passive and their line speed is lacking compared with other teams. While the attack looks constantly threatening, I wonder if there is too much focus on attack to the detriment of defence.
It would be a shame to miss the ITM Cup Championship semi finals, but it is on the cards. We were all given confidence after two wins to start with, but it ends up that they were over the worst two teams in the competition. Since then the Stags have only one win over Northland which was exciting, but they have suffered disappointing losses to Otago, Manawatu, Tasman and Taranaki where the defence has been found wanting.
The current Stags team does seem to have a great culture, maybe they just need a season or two to gel? Maybe they need some more local players? There are so many potential reasons for their lacklustre 2014 season. They don't have the money to do what Taranaki and Hawkes Bay have done by buying lots of big name players.
I think they need a quality tighthead prop and hooker who could then boost the Highlanders squad. It is also hard to know how many seasons to give young players new to ITM Cup before you have to discard them? This team has a good mix of youth and experience, so hopefully they gel sooner rather than later. They probably have to win two games to guarantee an ITM Cup semi finals spot, so the season isn't over yet, but given that their remaining games include Canterbury, Counties and Hawkes Bay, it could be a tall order!
Being in my mid thirties I remember the days of Eion Crossan and Simon Culhane kicking us to victory in the second division, only for the Stags to only win one game in the first division and get relegated again, so in some ways we shouldn't be surprised seeing the Stags struggling in the ITM Cup Championship in 2014.
What do you think has happened to the Southland Stags and what can be done to fix their 2014 ITM Cup Championship campaign?
I hate to say it, but I think that going back to grassroots like Northland has with a majority of local players could be the best option.