Injured Hardie to make his return against Otago
The Stags management team is targeting the round-three game against Otago in Invercargill for key loose forward John Hardie's return to action.
A knee injury has sidelined Hardie since the Highlanders' hit-out against a Barbarians team in Invercargill in June.
The injury had hindered the 2013 Southland player of the year for most of the Highlanders' campaign, and he was put back on the injured list when playing against the Barbarians on his return.
The 26-year-old, who has played 57 games for Southland, was originally eyeing a return for the Stags' first national provincial championship game against Bay of Plenty in Invercargill on Friday night.
However, Southland coach Brad Mooar is resigned to losing Hardie for the Bay of Plenty game and against North Harbour in Auckland in round two.
"He's rehabing it well and if all goes to plan we are looking at the third game in. So it may well be Otago at the Roaring Pen. He's doing well with the rehab and the medical staff are doing a good job so we're hopeful," Mooar said.
Hardie's injury may well open the door for teenage loose forward Bill Fukofuka.
Tim Boys seems almost certain to start on the openside flank and Elliot Dixon at No 8, leaving the third loose forward starting spot open.
Fukofuka was an Auckland age- group representative who headed south to join the Rugby Southland academy system this year.
Last year he captained Tangaroa College to win the national co-ed schools final and was one of the team's best players.
He played for Blues in this season's Southland club rugby competition.
The provincial debut might be earlier than predicted but it seems he is in the running to play an important role against Bay of Plenty on Friday night.
Other loose forward options in the squad include Alex Taylor and Brenton Howden, while Mike Stewart, who it seems is regarded more of a locking option, could also provide cover.
The rest of the pack looks pretty settled.
The makeup of the backline to start against Bay of Plenty is another talking point.
Scott Eade and Taylor Adams are jostling for the halfback spot, Lima Sopoaga will start at first five-eighth and Cardiff Vaega will probably partner either Willis Halaholo or Mark Jackman in the midfield.
Halaholo was one of Southland's best last season, though new recruit Jackman did start against Otago in Alexandra on Friday.
Keanu Kahukura has been one of the better club players in recent seasons and is in line for one of the starting wing spots.
Tongan international Otulea Katoa started on the other wing against Otago in Alexandra, although Lolohea Loco did show he has some X-factor about him when he was introduced in the second half.
Warrick Lynn also got game time on the wing in the second half but struggled.
If Halaholo got a start in the midfield it could send Jackman to the fullback spot, but it might be time to give Junior Ngaluafe his shot in the No 15 jersey and try to put that talent to good use.
Mooar said it was exciting to be looking at the first competition game after a lengthy buildup.
"When I arrived there was about 160 days [to go] and we were counting them down, now we are under seven days aren't we. It's very exciting and we'll try and use that emotion, but remain focused on the task," he said.
The Southland Times