Otago rugby coach Steve Martin does not sound like a man whose team are still searching for Air NZ Cup success.

To the contrary, he is positively chirpy despite Otago dropping their opening two matches to Wellington and Southland.

And he reckons a third defeat tomorrow night at home against North Harbour would not necessarily spell doom and gloom for what he describes as a long season.

Coming off a poor 2008 when they finished 10th in the 14-team competition, Martin is more than satisfied his team are an improved version of last year's outfit.

"Aside from the results I think our performances have been encouraging," Martin said ahead of tomorrow's match at Carisbrook in Dunedin.

"We have created a number of attacking opportunities, which we just have to start nailing to run up some good points.

"We just need to nail one or two of these opportunities; we were only a try off winning both our first two games, which were against semifinalists from last year.

"We are pleased with the way the team have been operating," said Martin, who added that sometimes improvements were masked by the results.

"Ultimately you will be judged by the results, and that is what we are trying to achieve, but it is a good sign if a team is growing and improving.

"Our set piece is better than last year and we have been creating more opportunities for ourselves."

Martin is mindful Otago will need to take their chances against a North Harbour side appearing to flourish under the direction of new coaches Craig Dowd and Jeff Wilson.

After tipping over reigning champions Canterbury in round one, North Harbour stumbled at home last week against Tasman, a result which head coach Dowd responded to by making seven changes to his starting 15.

Among the changes is the return of All Black Luke McAlister at first five-eighth, while injury ruled out wing Rudi Wulf, who has been replaced by Ken Pisi.

By contrast, Martin has made minimal changes, giving prop Sam Hibbard a start ahead of former All Black Kees Meeuws and opting for Luke Herden instead of Andrew Parata at second five-eighth.

Martin has taken more than a passing interest on the influence of Wilson, a former Otago icon, on the North Harbour backline.

"Jeff has got into his coaching and he has decided to do it further north. I am sure he's going to be a very good coach," he said.

"He would like nothing more than to come back down to Carisbrook with a rugby team to pit them against Otago.

"He has a huge knowledge of the game tactically, and a personal approach to preparation that is second to none.

"He was a genius as a player and the challenge for him now is to get that knowledge across to players in a way that they can take it on board."

Martin just hopes Wilson's competitive nature will not rub off on his players until next week.

Otago
Ben Smith, Karne Hesketh, Brett Mather, Luke Herden, Ryan Shortland, Chris Noakes, Sean Romans, Steven Setephano, Alando Soakai (captain), Adam Thomson, Tom Donnelly, Hayden Triggs, Sam Hibbard, Jason Macdonald, Ben Nolan.

Reserves: Peter Mirrielees, Kees Meeuws, Hoani Matenga, Paul Grant, Johnny Legg, Glenn Dickson, Andrew Parata.

North Harbour
Jack McPhee, Anthony Tuitavake (captain), George Pisi, Andrew Mailei, Ken Pisi, Luke McAlister, Matt France, Richard Mayhew, Malakai Ravulo, Chris Smith, Filo Paulo, James King, Ben Afeaki, Michael Mayhew, James Afoa.

Reserves: Joe Royal, Michael Reid, Viliame Ma'afu, Robbie Colhoun, Nalu Tuigamalu, Michael Harris, Nafi Tuitavake.

- NZPA