Two “upsets” made it another intriguing round of the Citizens Shield, and maintained this extraordinarily tight race to the semifinals that seemed to start about two months ago.
I use “upsets” deliberately because this is genuinely a competition where, even though Old Boys and Valley are clear at the top, any team can beat any other.
Maheno grabbed a hugely significant result in its chase for back-to-back titles, beating Valley 23-20 to leapfrog Kurow into fourth place.
Up the valley, Kurow gave the runaway leaders a fair crack but Old Boys had enough juice in the tank to hold on for a 33-22 win.
The game of the round was in town, where Athletic Marist – missing no fewer than five players who did not turn up – showed a ton of ticker to pip Excelsior 33-31.
The lead changed hands no fewer than eight times as the Oamaru rivals went at it hammer and tongs until Athletic Marist flanker Alex Hill scored a late try and Antini Brown kicked the winning conversion.
One round to go. Here is the situation for each club:
Old Boys: Long assured the No1 spot, so result against Blues this weekend is irrelevant. Haven’t been in genuinely top form for a while, though.
Valley: Guaranteed a home semifinal but will be keen to avoid a second straight loss when it heads up to Kurow.
Excelsior: On the bubble. Was its own worst enemy at times on Saturday. Guaranteed a semifnal spot if it can beat Old Boys. Otherwise, needs other results to go its way.
Maheno: Could finish anywhere between third and sixth. Needs to either beat Athletic Marist, or hope Valley beats Kurow.
Kurow: Must get some points out of its final game against Valley. But even a win may not be enough if the two teams just above Kurow in the table manage to win.
Athletic Marist: Must beat Maheno (with a bonus point) and prevent Maheno from getting a bonus point, and hope Kurow loses but gains a bonus point. That sets up a three-way tie for fourth, and the tiebreaker is points difference.
If Athies and Maheno tie on 29 points, and Kurow stays on 28, Maheno would go through as it beat Athies twice earlier this season. Phew.
PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
You want the cream to rise to the top at this point of the season, and Robbie Smith is doing just that for Maheno. The master halfback guided the defending champion to its important win over Valley.
Rampaging loose forward Junior Fakatoufifita had another blinder for Athletic Marist, while team-mate Antini Brown showed all his skills at first five-eighth.
Old Boys’ talent stocks hardly needed refilling but they were blessed to pick up Sefo Ma’ake during the season, and the Tongan halfback put in another inspiring shift against Kurow.
“That was must-win for us. It was a huge win in the context of the team getting back on track and believing that they are good enough to win the competition. If we can make the top four, we’re two games away from retaining the shield. We’ve always had the potential. It’s just that we’ve been horribly affected by injuries to key players.” – Mark Wilson (Maheno)
Kurow beat Athletic Marist 27-0 in the curtain-raiser in Kurow.
Rightio, let’s make some bold (futile and almost certainly inaccurate) predictions for the final round (home teams first):
Excelsior v Old Boys: Blues are certainly capable of giving Old Boys a shake, but hard to see them holding the juggernaut at bay for 80 minutes. Old Boys 33-20.
Kurow v Valley: Yikes. Ummm. Valley has had the better season, but the result means more to Kurow. So hard to call. Kurow 26-23.
Athletic Marist v Maheno: Another tricky one. Both have run hot and cold this season. Perhaps a draw? Fine, Maheno 28-27.