New Zealand Cup
Southland promise stern challenge
October 16, 2008
Wellington powered past Southland in last year's quarter-finals © Getty Images
Underdogs Southland will head into their Air NZ Cup semi-final against Wellington confident of avoiding a repeat of their disappointing demise of a year ago.
The Stags were eliminated by the Lions at the quarterfinal stage last October, falling to a 45-3 defeat in the capital. Co-coach Simon Culhane admitted his players let themselves down as the opposition ran in six tries against them.
"We were probably overawed and even intimidated by Wellington last year," he said. "That's obviously in the minds of the boys and we won't let that happen again."
Southland also lost the round-robin clash between the two sides in Invercargill in September, but Culhane drew a fair few positives from a 26-7 defeat. The Stag's were camped in opposition territory in the first 40 minutes, but some superb defence from Wellington kept the score tied up at 7-7 at halftime before the visitors kicked away in the second spell.
"We physically did dominate the game and if our execution was more accurate things might have been different," Culhane said. "We crossed the line four or five times in the first half and didn't get the rub of the green. But there's definitely confidence there."
There was also confidence that Southland could overcome the home advantage that the Lions would have from an expected big crowd at Westpac Stadium. Culhane noted that four of the Stags' six wins this season had come on the road. Last weekend, they also had to travel for their quarterfinal, going to Mt Maunganui where they not only achieved the rare cup feat of being a winning away side in the playoffs, but also did it in style.
They routed Bay of Plenty 45-11 in what was their best display of the season, with winger Pehi Te Whare outstanding with his strong and elusive running as he picked up two tries. Te Whare will have an intriguing head-to-head battle with All Black Ma'a Nonu, whom Wellington coach Jamie Joseph has shifted from second five-eighth to the right wing.
Culhane said his players hadn't got carried away by their achievement of making the competition's last four for the first time in the union's history. "As soon as they got off the field, the boys wanted to know who we were going to play," he said.
"They weren't happy just to be in the semifinals. They wanted to go further and that was pleasing. There was a resolve in the side to do that."
Culhane and co-coach David Henderson have made just one change to their line-up, with Kendrick Lynn returning from a sternum injury to go to centre in a reshuffled backline and winger Mark Wells dropping to the bench. However, second five-eighth Jason Kawau is struggling with a shoulder injury and may be a late change.
For all of the Stags' burgeoning belief, they know that Wellington are hot favourites. The Lions, who topped the round-robin standings and beat Taranaki 50-30 in their quarter-final, will have seven past or present All Blacks in their starting 15 to Southland's one in halfback Jimmy Cowan.
They also have a fearsome ability to punish teams from long-range. "We're conscious they're a quality side and they have strike power all around the field," Culhane said. "They're lethal with turnover ball. We have to be wary of that and be on top of our game."
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