Jason Rutledge going head-on with David Hall

GOOD TIMES: Southland hooker Jason Rutledge in action during a pre-season game against Otago.
GOOD TIMES: Southland hooker Jason Rutledge in action during a pre-season game against Otago.

They've butted heads in club rugby, but playing against each other in the NPC will be a new experience for Stags hooker Jason Rutledge and his Northland counterpart David Hall tonight.

Between them they have played more than 200 games for Southland and were the Stags' joint players of the year in 2008 - but Hall is now a Taniwha after being considered surplus to requirements by Rugby Southland in the offseason.

Having scrapped over the maroon No 2 jersey for much of their careers, Rutledge was looking forward to catching up with the man known affectionately as "Crazy".

"It's going to be quite strange playing for different provincial unions on Rugby Park," Rutledge said. "Crazy is always good for a laugh, he's not one to get fired up and start throwing punches.

"We'll have a bit of a laugh and try and play our best footy. Crazy loves a bit of banter, he won't be shy. I haven't got too much banter, but it will be a bit special."

Hall isn't the only familiar face in the Northland pack. Flanker Hale T-Pole's career blossomed during a 60-game career in the south.

Rutledge said it would be a nice touch for him and Hall, two of Southland's elder statesmen, to be on the park as another of their ilk plays his last game for the province - Jimmy Cowan will sign off after more than a decade with the Stags before heading to the English premiership with Gloucester.

"It will be pretty cool in years to come to say we were both there and got to play in that game," Rutledge said.

"Who knows, Jimmy could be back in two years' time to play another couple of games for the Stags. When I think back . . . we've had some good times."

Plenty has been written about Cowan this season as he has said his goodbyes to the All Blacks, the Highlanders and now Southland, but few people know him the way team-mates such as Rutledge do.

"You get some different moods out of Jimmy, you don't know what you are going to strike some days," Rutledge said with a laugh.

"At the weekend he had his grumpy face on a few times, but other games he's a bit more relaxed. He's a good man and he brings plenty to the team. I think Graham Henry said something similar with the All Blacks.

"He always brings plenty of personality when you get on to the field. I hope he plays well and helps the team come through."

It would obviously be a romantic way for Cowan to finish tonight, with a win over Northland that keeps alive Southland's hopes of playoff rugby in this year's championship, but the Cambridge Blues will be determined to break hearts instead.

Southland's defence has stiffened considerably from the start of the season, but it will be challenged by a dangerous Northland backline championed by former All Black Rene Ranger.

The Stags have spoken at length about the problems Ranger has caused Southland in the past and they will try to bail him up in his own 22m as much as possible.

"We just need to make sure we do our things well and not get sucked into their game and let him attack from all over the show," Rutledge said. "If we can get into their 22m it makes it hard for him to run 80m to score, rather than showing his flair from 30m out from the goal line."

An improved defensive line has allowed Rutledge to come into the game more in recent weeks, including a standout effort in the win over Harbour on Sunday.

Rutledge conceded it had been frustrating not being able to get his trademark pilfering game going with the opposition walking through the Stags' line.

"Our defence was so woeful it was hard to get near the ball to get some turnovers. The boys are starting to get that line speed and making those tackles that we were missing."

Southland: Marty McKenzie, Junior Ngaluafe, Nathan Hohaia, Cardiff Vaega, Tim Cornforth, Scott Eade, Jimmy Cowan, Elliot Dixon, Tim Boys, Dion Bates, Alex Ryan, Josh Bekhuis, Nic Barrett, Jason Rutledge, Jamie Mackintosh (capt). Reserves: Brayden Mitchell, Tukiterangi Raimona, Hoani Macdonald, Scott McKee, Tayler Adams, Matt Saunders, Mark Wells.

Northland: Faatoina Autagavaia, Dan Caprice, Rene Ranger, Derek Carpenter, Tui Faasisila, Ash Moeke, Samisoni Fisilau, Cam Goodhue, Jack Ram, Hale T-Pole, Bryce Williams, Jack Whetton, Justin Davies, David Hall, Ross Wright. Reserves: Tone Kopelani, Scott Vessey, Dan Faleafa, Dan Pryor, Tane Takulua, Eddie Paea, Mateo Malupo. Referee: Richard Kelly