If Otago are to have any chance of bringing the Ranfurly Shield back to Dunedin this weekend, it would be hard to imagine the province’s electric back three not playing a big role in making that happen.

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Of their outside back trio, All Blacks Sevens stars Jona Nareki and Vilimoni Koroi were sensational in Otago’s 36-25 win over Manawatu in Palmerston North last weekend.

Both players made life tough for the Turbos defence, with the latter bagging a brace of tries in what was a man-of-the-match performance, but it could be the efforts of their less heralded teammate that may prove to be just as valuable.

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The Aussie Rugby Show | Episode 19

Starting in his first game at Mitre 10 Cup level, Freedom Vaha’akolo shone on the provincial stage a week after making a brief debut against his hometown side Auckland in a 38-6 thrashing at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

A relatively quiet first half was followed by an explosive second stanza, whereby the 23-year-old rookie showed touches of magic to score his first-ever Mitre 10 Cup try and set up captain Michael Collins with an intercept and an audacious flick pass.

His hulking frame and considerable power balances out athletic traits of speed and agility brought to the table by Nareki and Koroi, while his skill set is on the same level as the Highlanders pair.

It will be welcome news to Otago fans, then, that all three players have retained their places in an unchanged starting lineup to challenge Taranaki for the Ranfurly Shield in Inglewood this Sunday.

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Among those eager to see what more Vaha’akolo can offer at this level is Otago first-five Josh Ioane, who also looms as an integral figure in reclaiming the Log O’ Wood for the second time in as many years.

Speaking to RugbyPass earlier this week, the one-test All Black said Vaha’akolo had been training with the Highlanders throughout Super Rugby Aotearoa after lighting up the Auckland club competition, having scored 21 tries for Ponsonby last season.

“Freedom’s been training with us at the Highlanders. [I’ve] been able to see how good of a player he is, and he definitely showed that on the weekend,” Ioane said of the former Auckland age-grade and sevens representative.

“He looked quite dangerous and looked like a quality football player. [I’ve] been working with him the past few weeks, so it’s good to see him have a crack.”

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Ioane himself looked comfortable in the blue and gold No. 10 jersey against Manawatu, showing off his esteemed running game and scoring 13 points from the boot.

Despite that, he stressed there was plenty to work on if the Razorbacks are to take down a Bulls side that will be without Beauden and Jordie Barrett.

A leaky defence in the opening and closing 15 minutes of the game allowed Manawatu to score all of their points, which is something that will likely have been addressed during the week by Otago head coach Tom Donnelly.

“That last 10 [minutes] probably let us down. Manawatu were able to cross the line a couple of times,” Ioane said upon reflection of the encounter.

“We reviewed our game on the weekend and there’s plenty of positives and negatives – a few work-ons, I should say – so we’re looking to fix those.”

The 25-year-old is no stranger to Ranfurly Shield fever, having started in Otago’s 23-19 win over Waikato in 2018 which saw the snatch the coveted silverware off the Mooloos for the second time in five years.

He also played in three of Otago’s Shield defences against Manawatu, Waikato and Canterbury last year, with the then-holders fighting off the former two sides before falling short against their South Island neighbours.

With considerable big-match experience at provincial level, Ioane knows that if Otago is to cut short Taranaki’s reign as Shield holders after just eight days, his side will need to play to the best of their abilities.

“It’s a big game. I’m going there thinking Taranaki’s going to bring their best, it’s not going to be an easy game,” he said.

“For us at Otago, we’re just focusing on preparing well and giving ourselves the best chance [of winning].”

Otago team to play Taranaki:

1. George Bower, 2. Liam Coltman, 3. Josh Hohneck, 4. Jack Regan, 5. Will Tucker, 6. Charles Elton, 7. Slade McDowall, 8. Dylan Nel, 9. Kayne Hammington, 10. Josh Ioane, 11. Jona Nareki, 12. Aleki Morris-Lome, 13. Michael Collins (c), 14. Freedom Vaha’akolo, 15. Vilimoni Koroi.

Reserves: 16. Ricky Jackson, 17. Jonah Aiona, 18. Hisa Sasagi, 19. Josh Hill, 20. Nasi Manu, 21. James Arscott, 22. Josh Timu, 23. Mitchell Scott.

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