Southland's Saunders weighing his options

OPTIONS: Matt Saunders passing the ball to Josh Bekhuis (left).
OPTIONS: Matt Saunders passing the ball to Josh Bekhuis (left).

Matt Saunders quietly celebrated his 50th game for Southland on Sunday but he was more excited about the Stags breaking their duck after a tough start to the national provincial championship.

"It's always nice but it was nicer to win, I tell you," he said.

"We'd lost four on the trot so we were desperate."

True to form, Saunders was happy for the milestone to slip by so the focus could go on Jimmy Cowan's 100th appearance in the same game.

Rugby Southland plans to mark the occasion at a future home game, either against Northland on Wednesday or Taranaki next month.

Saunders, who turned 30 last week, is in his fifth season with Southland after playing 37 games for Otago, 16 for North Otago and more than 30 Super matches for the Highlanders.

It's not a bad career for the one-time schoolboy star - who made his debut as a 17-year-old for the Old Golds in a Ranfurly Shield challenge against Waikato, where he marked All Blacks centre Keith Lowen - but it is a career that he was definitely closer to the end of than the start.

In fact, this season may be Saunders' last. "The body is fine but I've got a few other things going on with the horses and that. I don't want to be pushed, I'd rather go out on my own terms. I can't get much slower before I'm too slow and I don't want to be asked quietly to exit," he said.

Saunders has been labelled with the dreaded "utility" tag in this year's NPC media guide.

After moving from the midfield out to the wing and then back into second-five, Saunders joked that he was running out of options.

"I can't kick so I can't play 10, and I'm too stiff to bend over for the ball at halfback. I wouldn't want to play in the loose forwards with the way they get out of bed on a Monday morning, so I'm in a bit of trouble."

Saunders' experience will be key against North Harbour this afternoon as the Stags try to force a pattern on to the game.

Southland will be keen to avoid a broken-field game, which would play into the hands of a fleet-footed Harbour backline, relying on a trusted recipe of territory and possession that finally delivered against Hawke's Bay.

Saunders said he would end his career with few regrets.

"I've been in some good teams and there was the shield era, not much is going to beat that. I've never won a competition in any form of rugby, which has always pained me. I've been in about four or five finals and never won one, not even a club comp. That's still to tick off."

And when he does hang up his boots, Saunders plans to remain involved in the game.

He has been a vocal contributor at Southland trainings and plans to move into coaching. Rugby Southland has targeted him as a future Stags coach.

"I do enjoy working with the young guys but I need to learn how to coach. You can have rugby knowledge but how to coach and how to motivate is a whole different kettle of fish."

Saunders has part-time roles with Rugby Southland as a development officer and in marketing and sponsorship.

Trying to secure sponsorship at the start of the year in a difficult financial climate had been an eye-opener for Saunders.

Away from the game, he owns a couple of horses, which he helps train with Invercargill trainer and driver Andrew Armour.

The interest was more of a hobby than anything but was something Saunders was keen to develop after his playing career came to an end.

Meanwhile, Luke Devcich has been reinstated at fullback for North Harbour as they chase their first NPC win this season.

The in-form fullback was surprisingly dropped for this week's loss to Otago, with Rudi Wulf replacing him at the back.

Wulf has been named on the right wing.

The Southland Times