Rovers v Miramar
Central League soccer
Remember the feral celebrations in the final Central League soccer match at Park Island, Napier, roughly this time last year?
The compact crowd went wild after Bluewater Napier City Rovers had overwhelmed traditional league foes Miramar Rangers 4-1 in a do-or-die match to etch their name on the silverware.
It was only the Napier club's third title in the premier winter league - they won the crown in 1981 and in 1986 - when they were not competing in the former, more superior, National League.
As Rovers' coach, Grant Hastings, had aptly put it: "It's all about players today, mate, not grumpy old men."
The opposition's body language was priceless, too.
An ashen-faced Miramar Rangers coach, Valerio Raccuglia, of Italy, handed the post-match interview with the media to his manager, Ryan Hollands.
That's what the powerhouses of Central League expect every time they run on to the Bluewater Stadium.
Sure, it offers one of the most pristine soccer pitches around the country, thanks to the Napier City Council ground staff, but for the out-of-towners that luxury comes at a price.
It's all tickety-boo to look forward to playing in a region that backs it up with sublime weather - occasionally around the 18C mark in peak winter, that is - but it becomes seemingly harder to hit the highway back to home with three points in the bag.
No one probably knows that better than Miramar Rangers, as they sit precariously on a potentially banana-skin surface to wrest the trophy off defending champions Rovers tomorrow with two or so rounds of the league matches to go.
June 2011 probably is one that will take a long time to erase.
Arriving in Hawke's Bay as the defending Chatham Cup (knockout) champions, the then Matt Calcott-coached Miramar slumped 5-0 in a season when the Rovers went on make the cup final before suffering a gut-wrenching defeat to the 2011 champions, Wairarapa United, in Palmerston North.
The Wellingtonians have stumbled here numerous other times in cup and league matches, although they pipped the Rovers 3-2 in the capital city in the first round on June 1.
"It's not the happiest hunting ground for Miramar but they'll come down here on Sunday with quality," says Hastings as the Rangers sit on the top of the league table with Wellington Olympic mathematically nipping at their heels this winter.
The Greeks host Wairarapa United tonight, so Raccuglia and his men will have an eye on those proceedings before tomorrow's 2pm kick-off here.
"We can still spoil their party, but Miramar know what to do when they get here."
The visitors haven't lost a game this season but have four draws and tomorrow's forecast isn't typically a Bay serving of sunshine in the Rovers' last home game.
The Rovers, minus nine title-winning players and out of the running to retain their crown, are sticking with the same team that beat Upper Hutt 5-0 in Napier last Sunday, but English import defender Aaron Jones returns to the bench to displace rookie Lesley Taylor.
Hastings' message to his troops is simple: "For us, week in week out I've told them to go out there and be the best we can be.
"They are a champion side, so we want to prove we can live with them and be the best we can be."
Hastings says no one can deny Miramar are in great place after a season of playing some good football.
"We just haven't had the depth and continuity that they have had," he says, bemoaning a bad patch that saw them lose crucial points.
The Rovers play away against Wellington United (next Saturday) and Lower Hutt Vity (August 31) in a catch-up game.