Further pain for Stags as Lions romp home
The 2012 Southland Stags are a team struggling to find their way.
Expectations remain high for a team who have managed to win the Ranfurly Shield twice in three seasons, but the reality is that outside of last year's win in Christchurch, the Stags haven't delivered often enough with the players at their disposal.
To put it bluntly, they have been less than the sum of their parts.
Last year that was put down to a Super Rugby hangover, with a number of star players returning home bruised and battered from a draining Highlanders campaign.
This year Southland are trying to cope with a young backline playing behind a forward pack which is without a fully-functioning loose forward unit.
The loss of John Hardie, Tim Boys and Elliot Dixon appears to be catastrophic.
Things got worse in the 40-8 loss to Wellington yesterday when Brayden Mitchell, a hooker masquerading as a flanker, eventually succumbed to a knee injury in the second half.
Ben Nally, who had left the field for Michael Fatialofa, had to come back on and Fatialofa moved to the side of the scrum.
When Alex Taylor limped off, centre Nathan Hohaia had to run back out and fill up a place in the lineout.
But the damage had well and truly been done before that, with Wellington adding to their two first-half tries with three in the final 20 minutes.
Southland had done well to avoid a flood after being down 23-3 at the half-hour mark.
For the next half hour they kept Wellington scoreless and put together a well-worked try to Cardiff Vaega. It might have been a sign the Stags are approaching the sort of rugby they are capable of playing and it wasn't the only positive from a game which, on the face of things, might have been a train wreck.
Southland's scrum was an improvement on the Counties game and the lineout was much better than it looked at training this week. And given the fact the Stags fell off 17 tackles in the first half alone, it was a miracle they didn't concede a cricket score.
Given all the disruptions, it should be no surprise - but of huge concern - that three of Wellington's tries came from set-piece play, two from scrums and one a move off the front of the lineout.
A fourth try came when wing Alapati Leiua charged down a clearing kick by Jimmy Cowan.
The Stags should have had a second try in the dying moments but Hoani Macdonald's final pass couldn't find an unmarked Kade Poki.
Earlier, Fijian halfback Nemia Kenatale, who offered a spark off the bench, looked to have scored under the posts but the referee wasn't convinced.
Looking ahead to Thursday night's Donald Stuart memorial game against Otago, the feeling is not one of overwhelming confidence.
Wins over the old foe have become almost routine in recent years, but after a pre-season loss in Balclutha, and two straight losses in games that matter, Southland needs to right the ship.
Boys (shoulder) and Scott Eade (hamstring) should be back, hopefully along with Alex Ryan - whose late withdrawal with a hamstring injury prompted the unusual move to include Stags junior physio Andrew Mackintosh on the bench - while Dixon could be pressed into service early.
The Stags lost two games at the start of last season before redeeming themselves in a Shield challenge in Christchurch.
A win over Otago wouldn't just be timely, it might also be vital.
Meanwhile, Auckland ran in eight tries to thump an off-key Manawatu 59-16 at Eden Park yesterday.
In Saturday's games, Canterbury beat North Harbour 36-3, Northland upset Waikato in Hamilton 29-27 and in an entertaining clash in New Plymouth, Taranaki retained the Ranfurly Shield with a 49-40 win over Tasman.
Wellington 40 (Alapati Leiua 2, Ardie Savea 2, Dane Coles tries; Jason Woodward 3 pen, 3 con)
Southland 8 (Cardiff Vaega try; Marty McKenzie pen).
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