Step forward . . . Big River Country women’s rugby team captain
Tegan Hollows, supported by her team-mates, forges for the tryline
once again during her team’s home semi-final win against Varsity

The pitches are perfect and the players are peaking. Rugby correspondent Francis Parker casts his eye over the form and makes some predictions for the coming Southern Region competition.

• Clutha Valley RFC (Condors) 2022 finished: 1st Predicted 2023 finish: 6th

Two-time Southern Region Champion Clutha Valley is back for another year with a target on its back. Unlike other teams challenging for the title this season, Valley has lost a plethora of players and at this stage has only named a squad of 22 players for the season. Valley has had strong pre-season outings with its squad, and has been extremely lucky not to sustain any injuries. It has welcomed back some strong players to the side, but unfortunately those do not outweigh the losses it has sustained. Clutha Valley is a quality outfit with some outrageously talented players, but unless it adds at least ten more names to its squad this season, I can’t see it making the finals — Southern Region Rugby is a battle of attrition, and a squad cannot perform to its peak with only the bare minimum.

Players to watch: Liam Turnbull, Damian Wilson, Jonny Sargent, Sean Aitken-Boyle.

• Big River Country (BRC) 2022 finished: 2nd (Women’s) Predicted 2023 finish: 1st

The Big River Country women are back in action again this season with a full schedule of matches to make everyone excited. BRC was in hot form last year in its one-round competition, in which it narrowly lost to the Dunedin Sharks in the final. Since then, BRC has signed some new coaches, with Dan Marshall and Lee Allan taking over and creating a new brand of excitement and fizz. Pre-season has been solid in terms of results; there was strong showing against Pioneer before a close loss against Alhambra-Union. Injuries are a bit of a concern early doors, with key players out for the start of the season. This will test the depth of the squad, but I think that it will take it in its stride and give another showing to be proud of this season.

Players to watch: Tegan Hollows, Kayley Johnson, Samarra Soper, Sasha Scott.

• Clutha RFC (Steamers) 2022 finished: 2nd Predicted 2023 finish: 3rd

Clutha was back to its best last season after a few years shy of finals footy. The Steamers were undone in the final by a huge defensive effort from the victorious Clutha Valley side. Clutha has recruited well, but has also lost some key personnel in vital positions, namely halfback and first five. Clutha’s forward pack will no doubt dominate most fixtures again this season, with its strong tight five and dynamic loosies. However, the link-up between forwards and backs is key to success. Clutha has the squad capable of going all the way this season, but is just lacking depth in key positions, in my opinion.

Players to watch: Max Pennell, Kerrod Baldwin, Sylvester Reeves, Penetekoso Tevaga.

• Crescent RFC (Coal Miners) 2022 finished: 3rd Predicted 2023 finish: 5th

Crescent has kept the majority of its squad whole from previous seasons. It has built a strong culture based on camaraderie and playing for each other, which shines through on a regular basis. Crescent has lost representative first five and team leader Chase Owen through injury this season, which is a major blow.

But Owen has joined the coaching staff and will offer valuable insight off the pitch. The gap at pivot is able to be filled by some fantastic youngsters coming through the ranks, but Crescent’s backline may not have the same flair and direction it had in previous seasons. Crescent’s forward pack will be up to the task again and has been strengthened by the signing of loose forward Kace Shaw, who has shown his ability to shift bodies in the pre-season.

I’m predicting a competitive season for the Coal Miners, but nothing outrageously spectacular.

Players to watch: Kace Shaw, Joshua Cook, Harley McHardy, Clayton Cochrane.

• Toko RFC (Axemen)

2022 finished: 4th

Predicted 2023 finish: 1st

Well then, this is the boldest prediction I’ve thrown out at any stage of my brief sports reporting career. I like the look of Toko very much this season. It took the competition by surprise last season to some degree. A new coaching set up brought new values and a buy-in not seen at Toko for many seasons. This buy-in brought a new found confidence and players who took their game to a new level. This year Toko has recruited well again, adding some huge additions to its forward pack as well as welcoming back some old heads into its backline. The addition of loose forwards Ethan Harrex and Tim Smaill to an already stacked forward pack is fantastic. The return of Jacky Scott and Dylan Mathieson to the backline fills some holes that were made last season. Scott is more than likely going to run the cutter with Mathieson no doubt running well in the midfield. Toko has, in my opinion, one of the strongest squads in terms of depth and ability and is my favourite for this Southern Region Rugby season.

Players to watch: Kieran O’Sullivan, Josh Beer-Williams, Jacky Scott, Jared Hayes.

• West Taieri RFC(Pigs)

2022 finished: 5th

Predicted 2023 finish: 2nd

West Taieri is coming off its worst finish since joining the competition last season. Having said that, bottom four champion isn’t too bad, considering it used last season as a ‘‘rebuilding’’ season. The Pigs have hit the ground running this season in terms of numbers, and have welcomed back some key players who were missing last year for various reasons. The return of Steve Green (unretired), Will Scorgie (uninjured), and Jackson Reid (failed building apprenticeship) are key additions to an already strong West Taieri squad. Its preseason has been thrown into disarray however, with just the one match thanks to other teams pulling the pin. The Pigs have enough depth, quality and confidence to get close, if not to, the final this season.

Players to watch: Callum Smeaton, Steve Green, Ethan Hippolite, Will Scorgie.

• Heriot RFC (Death Valley Boys)

2022 finished: 6th

Predicted 2023 finish: 4th

Heriot will have been bitterly disappointed with the way its season finished last year, and now it finally has a chance to put it right with a full schedule of footy. Heriot was unlucky not to make the top four last season and was leading by plenty in the bottom four final against West Taieri before being run over in the second half. This season the boys from Death Valley have had a management shake-up, with Southern Region Topp Cup coach Shaun Macaskill taking over the head coaching position. Macaskill has added some exciting talent to the roster, along with the grizzly Heriot veterans who just seem to get better with age. Heriot has added some size into its backline, which is something it has been missing in recent seasons. This may be the catalyst to see it head into finals footy again this year.

Players to watch: Dylan Mackenzie, Tyson Adams, Cam Morris, Clayton Buchanan.

• Lawrence RFC (Nuggets)

2022 finished: 7th

Predicted 2023 finish: 9th

Lawrence has kept more or less the same squad from last season, which is a bonus for it. It has added some exciting backs to the mix, but also lost some key experience in vital positions. Lawrence’s forwards were combative and dominant in patches last season, but couldn’t put it together for sustained amounts of time. Expect more of the same this year; Lawrence will want to set a platform up front to allow its backs room to move. Predicting end of season results at this time of the season is dusty at best, but based on Lawrence’s preseason form, I can’t see it mounting much of a title challenge this year.

Players to watch: Sam Wyber, Jake Lyders, Dion Muir, Oscar Goodlet.

• Owaka RFC (Swamp Hens)

2022 finished: 8th

Predicted 2023 finish: 7th

Owaka has recruited heavily over the summer, with plenty of fresh faces turning up at training. There is a definite Pacific Island flavour to the Swamp Hens squad this season, which will be both exciting and dangerous. Owaka is also welcoming back a couple of ex-players who have plied their trade away from South Otago for the past few seasons but are back and ready to roll. Albeit light on front rowers, Owaka’s forward pack will be mobile, with plenty of players being able to play in more than one position. Owaka’s backs will be extremely dangerous on the front foot and will be able to hold their own on defence. Owaka has the second-largest squad on paper and will be hoping to finish the season that way as well.

Players to watch: Tom Fraser, Josh Huddleston, Ieru Leteu, Asu Mati Nei.

Clinton RFC (Wild Horses)

2022 finished: 9th

Predicted 2023 finish: 8th

Clinton has once again added numerous players to its roster this season. The Wild Horses have benefited from contacts inside SOHS, with plenty of school leavers heading down to the Stables again this season. These players will combine nicely with the players who arrived last season and got a small taste of premier rugby. Clinton still boasts plenty of experience, especially in the forward pack, with the likes of hooker Russell Moloney and loose forward Mike Luxmoore already showing their quality this season. Clinton’s backs still have a fresh and exciting look to them. They will look to pivot Nick Anderson for leadership and a cool head in pressure situations. Clinton has the biggest squad on paper this season and will more than likely need every single player on that list if it wants to better its disappointing result from last season.

Players to watch: Mike Luxmoore, Josh Hurring, Nick Anderson, Jerome Waller.