The Northland premier rugby league finals will not be short of drama as a win for the Otangarei Knights on Friday sets up a tantalising contest with the Takahiwai Warriors.
The Warriors, who are undefeated in 2019, finished first after this weekend's final round of the regular season with a bye. The Knights, who finished second, completed the regular season with 42-8 win over the Hora Hora Broncos on Friday night in Hikurangi.
To round out the top four, the Portland Panthers jumped from fifth to third in one week to earn a home preliminary semifinal against the fourth-placed Northern Wairoa Bulls.
Portland, who were defaulted to by the Bulls on Saturday, claimed third through a superior points differential, while the Bulls snatched fourth over the Broncos through the same method.
With a tough task away from home against Takahiwai next weekend to decide who goes straight to the grand final, Otangarei would have been hoping for a convincing performance against a strong Hora Hora pack.
Thanks to some cold and wet conditions in Hikurangi on Friday, the game was more an unconvincing one for both sides as a slippery ball and surface proved difficult to manage.
Otangarei spurned a number of chances while in Broncos territory, even though they won by a 34-point margin. The Knights were still dominant throughout the game but small errors impeded the team's progress.
"We were a bit off the ball tonight," Knights coach Des Nordstrand said on Friday.
"We tried a few things at the beginning but the conditions didn't allow us much so we need to go away and work on it, take the good and take the bad."
While he was happy with the win, Nordstrand said Otangarei needed to keep their standard high for the whole game if they were going to triumph over Takahiwai next weekend.
"We didn't play as good as we should have and we didn't execute as good as we should have, so we just have to get better at it because Takahiwai will punish us for the mistakes we made."
At one stage in the second half, a Hora Hora player's knee connected with an Otangarei player's head as the latter was looking to reset the ball. In retaliation, the Otangarei player threw a punch towards the Hora Hora player's chin which connected poorly. Otangarei were awarded the penalty.
Nordstrand denounced his player's action and said that kind of violence shouldn't be in the game.
"No one should be throwing punches, that's what we need to get right out of the game," he said.
"We are trying to build the game and people come and see that and it's what turns people off and it comes down to discipline."
Hora Hora coach Neville Rodgers echoed Nordstrand's message and added no player should be allowed to retaliate even if an opposing player had committed a similar offence.
"It's the stuff that we as a code need to try and stamp out a bit more because we've got to work on our image a little bit in terms of trying to attract new blood."
In spite of the incident, Rodgers said he was proud of his team's effort against a quality opposition.
With about five frontline players missing from Friday's game to prepare for Hora Hora's club rugby premier reserve final against Waipū on Saturday, Rodgers wondered whether the result may have been different with their inclusion.
"If they weren't playing the finals, they probably would have been here and it might have been a bit different but who knows, it's all fish and chips now."