Stags season blighted by slow start
The big question for Stags fans to mull over - did Southland improve in 2013?
For a second straight year the Stags squeaked into the semifinals with a four-win, six-loss record, where they were again convincingly beaten.
That sort of result doesn't suggest much improvement, but the Stags will point to an improved attack which started to reveal itself over the second half of the season.
"During the period when we had the Ranfurly Shield we were a very good defensive team, but we weren't a very good attacking team," Southland coach David Henderson said.
"What we do get out of this season, is that we leaked a bit on defence, but once we started to score tries we were quite consistent in regards to getting across the line. We are growing as more of an attacking team."
The Stags scored only one try in their first three games and had to wait until round four for their first win.
Especially viewed in that light, their 21 tries from the round-robin was a marked improvement on the 14 they managed last year.
Southland also conceded 22 tries, 12 less than 2012 - but the Stags record must be coloured by the fact that unlike Manawatu, they did not meet Canterbury, Wellington or Auckland this season.
From 2009 to 2011, when the Stags enjoyed two shield tenures, they had either the best or next-best defence in the competition.
Last year only North Harbour and Manawatu conceded more tries.
Much of Southland's issues in 2013 can be put down to a poor beginning which saw them drop their first three games on the bounce, Henderson said.
"It was a slow start for us in regards to new combinations, we had new calling systems and that impacted on the start of the season. We started to get some momentum half way through and then at the end we came up against a team like Hawke's Bay, then Counties and Tasman, who were better than us, so the end didn't go the way we wanted it to go."
Southland managed crossover wins over premiership teams Waikato and Bay of Plenty.
They ran down the Steamers, Harbour and Otago in the second half, proving the hard work done on their fitness before the season paid dividends, but also exposed an inability to start games well.
The win over the Otago was something special.
The atmosphere under the roof at Forsyth Barr Stadium was provincial rugby at its best and both teams contributed to an entertaining spectacle which eventually saw Southland reclaim the Donald Stuart Memorial Trophy for the first time since 2011.
But many of Southland's losses were an exercise in frustration.
The Stags dominated in Whangarei but couldn't get a win over Northland. They were poor against Taranaki, but also unlucky that a referee blunder played a big part in the result.
Their loss to Manawatu should have killed off their playoff hopes before they resurrected their season with three straight wins.
"That was a bit of a turning point for us, we had a long look at ourselves after that game. It was there for the taking and it should have set us up for a week of three games, but it didn't happen," Henderson said.
Henderson believes the best way forward for the Stags is if they can find some more attacking pace to complement the likes of Cardiff Vaega, Willias Halaholo, Scott Eade and Taylor Adams, Marty McKenzie and Robbie Robinson, if his form returns.
Wingers Tim Conforth and Gareth Willims-Spiers both succumbed to injury, while Bryan Milne did well when pushed out to the flank, but Southland desperately needs some of the pace that the good teams are able to unleash - players like Zac Guildford, James Lowe and Buxton Popoali'i.
- © Fairfax NZ News