RUGBY: Manawatū might have three All Blacks returning against Southland on Sunday, but it's just as big a game for hooker Sam Stewart.
He left Invercargill to forge a new trail in Manawatū and can't wait to play against his Southlanders alongside Ngani Laumape, Jackson Hemopo and Nehe Milner-Skudder in the final matinee of the season.
"It's not every day you get to play with three All Blacks," Stewart said.
"When you think of All Blacks who have come out of this province, it must be something in the water here."
The Turbos' losing season hasn't reflected that, but it has been a godsend for Stewart, who has become the starting No 2, getting his break when Tim Cadwallader was injured. For Stewart, the grass and jersey are greener in Manawatū.
"The Turbos are my team now and I have learnt a lot off the coaches."
His lineout throwing has been increasingly consistent, something he ascribes to getting more time in the saddle.
At Southland, the Stags had signed hooker Flynn Thomas from school and they also had the captain of three years, Brayden Mitchell, so Stewart wasn't hanging about for a break. Originally from Ashburton, he played for Southland against Otago at the end of last season, but serious injuries had wracked him.
So he and twin brother, No 8 Jordan, packed up and joined rural Te Kawau, enjoying having eight teams in a club competition and after living in the deep south since leaving Southland Boys' High School, a change of air beckoned.
Outside rugby, he is a qualified power linesman.
While the rugby world knows Southland have gone 20 defeats in a row, the Turbos have dropped seven of their last nine, so the Stags will sniff a chance to get out of their rut.
"Nobody likes losing, especially me," Stewart said. "This competition is so quick you have to treat every game like a final. Southland have put up some pretty good fights and never go down easy."
While the Turbos get three men back, they have lost three. Lock Tom Hughes has succumbed to a pectoral muscle strain, Cadwallader to a broken thumb suffered at the end of the 45-17 loss to Hawke's Bay and loan flanker Adrian Wyrill was again recalled by Taranaki.
For coaches Jeremy Cotter and Aaron Good and their laager, this game is huge in the vista of the overall season. They and 15 players underwent questioning in the season review this week.
Southland have a gritty forward pack, including former Hawke's Bay loosie Tony Lamborn and College Old Boys' lock Manaaki Selby-Rickit, while the Turbos can't afford to subconsciously rely on their returning stars. Laumape touched the ball only three times at Napier.
"We are not buttoning off," said Cotter. "We're determined to finish on a high and it won't be easy."
The incoming All Blacks had only a light training run on Friday and the captain's run on Saturday.
"It's nice to have our home-grown boys back.
"It's on everybody else to do their work – social-loafing is a real disease."
Hemopo could have played at lock or flanker, but by deploying him at No 6 it is his future and shifts Liam Mitchell to his old locking position. Sam Slade is the fifth player to be tried at No 8.
If the Turbos can't get the job done with this lineup, then...
Southland might have lost 56-8 to Auckland on Wednesday, but rested many players ahead of their crazy third game in a week. They last downed Manawatū in Palmerston North in 2010.
Manawatū: 15 Sam Malcolm, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Junior Laloifi, 10 Otere Black, 9 Kayne Hammington; 8 Sam Slade, 7 Antonio Kiri Kiri (captain), 6 Jackson Hemopo, 5 Nick Crosswell, 4 Liam Mitchell, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Sam Stewart, 1 Fraser Armstrong. Subs: 16 Gene Syminton, 17 Sean Paranihi, 18 Sione Asi, 19 Liam Hallam-Eames, 20 Brice Henderson; 21 Jamie Booth, 22 Jade Te Rure, 23 Hamish Northcott.
Southland: 15 Lewis Ormond, 14 Isaac Te Tamaki, 13 Matt Johnson, 12 Ray Nu'u, 11 Rory van Vugt, 10 James Wilson (captain), 9 Nico Costa; 8 Tony Lamborn, 7 Phil Halder, 6 Ray Tatafu, 5 Manaaki Selby-Rickit, 4 Ben Fotheringham, 3 Morgan Mitchell, 2 Jesse MacDonald, 1 Ethan De Groot. Subs: 16 Andrew Ready, 17 Joe Walsh, 18 Chris Apoua, 19 Bill Fokofuka, 20 Viliame Tosi, 21 Jay Renton, 22 Broc Hooper, 23 Aleki Morris-Lome.
Referee: Paul Williams (Taranaki).
Source : https://www.stuff.co.nz/manawatu-standard/news/107806739/Manawat-haven-t-had-the-best-season-but-their-next-opponents-have-lost-20-in-a-row