Nightmarish training week as Southland Stags half-backs closet nearly empty

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The Southland Stags have had a nightmarish training week losing three running backs to injury as the province’s depth of play is under extreme pressure.

The Stags called up Invercargill Blues half-back Osika Kaufononga for his captain’s run on Friday and he is now in line to make his National Provincial Championship debut from the bench against Wellington at Rugby Park on Saturday.

First-choice half-back Jahvis Wallace rolled an ankle in training on Tuesday, before Jakob Morrison suffered a blow to the head and failed an HIA test ruling him out of Saturday’s game.

Pirates-Old Boys youngster Josh Murrell was the next halfback, but he has a shoulder injury that kept him out of action against Wellington.

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Fortunately, Jay Renton had a fitness session on Tuesday which means he can start in the No.9 jersey.

Although Stags coach Dale MacLeod had to dig deep into Southland’s playing actions for a reserve halfback.

Kaufononga was originally due to line up for rugby league side Southland Rams at Invercargill on Saturday but will instead play in an NPC game for the Stags against Wellington.

He has shown promise for the Blues at club level in recent seasons, although with Renton also at the club, Kaufononga has played a lot in the first five this year.

Southland will also miss Marty Banks’ experienced first five-eight for Wellington’s clash with the Highlanders pivot unavailable for family reasons.

Forward actions have also been tested with a host of players recovering from injury or sidelined with mandatory 12-day concussion protocols.

It has been decided that hooker Flynn Thomas will miss the entire season as he works through concussion issues.

Loose forward Jordan Stewart was called up to the squad to train with the Stags this week but suffered a hamstring injury.

Props Joe Walsh, Niko Manaena and Joe Walsh will also miss Wellington’s game through injury, meaning Te Anau prop Kane Prentice is now in line for his debut from the bench.

MacLeod had 16 players in total who were unavailable for Saturday’s game and that was before the team hits its storm next week where it will play three games in nine days.

“It’s very frustrating because you can’t control any of it. It’s part of the territory though, we just have to get on with it.

“We don’t have depth and that’s the harsh reality, every year we’ve used between 42 and 48 players since I’ve been, that’s the attrition rate. We cannot afford to lose too many more.

MacLeod wasn’t a fan of the “storm week” concept of ending the competition early, as it puts even more pressure on game resources.

“[New Zealand Rugby] brought him in because they want to take that New Zealand A team out, but what he’s doing is straining some unions. Manawatu is a great example of that, they had their stormy week the first week and really resurfaced from that.

“It’s what it is, the guys are going to come out and play for the shirt. But there are boys in their seventh big game week, which is a different loadout from club rugby, so it’s just like that we succeeded and try to refresh them.

Saturday’s game kicks off at 4:35 p.m.

THE TEAMS

South Land: Robbie Robinson, Viliame Fine, Matt Whaanga, Scott Gregory, Rory van Vugt, Jack MacLeod, Jay Renton, Blair Ryall, Matt James, Grayson Knapp, Josh Bekhuis, Caleb Aperahama, Morgan Mitchell, Sam Stewart, Paula Latu. Reservations; Jacob Payne, Quinn Harrison-Jones, Kane Prentice, Charles Alaimalo, Jacob Coghlan, Osika Kaufononga, Willie Tufui, Tevita Latu.

Wellington: Connor Garden-Bachop, Julian Savea, Bill Proctor, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Mehe Milner-Skudder, Aiden Morgan, TJ Peneara, Peter Lakai, Sione Halalilo, Caleb Delany, Josh To’omaga, Dominic Bird, Pekahou Cowan, Asafo Aumua, Xavier Numia. Reservations; James O’Reilly, Solomona Sakalia, Hugo Plummer, Keelan Whitman, Richard Judd, Jackson Garden-Bachop, Ruben Love.

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Richard V. Johnson