The Otangarei Knights have secured second-place in Northland's premier rugby league competition with a convincing 66-12 win over the Northern Wairoa Bulls on Saturday.
The Knights, playing in Dargaville, jumped out to a 34-point lead with their opponents still scoreless at halftime. Despite a drop in quality early in the second half, the visitors regained their momentum for another dominant half of rugby league.
The win puts the Knights six points above the third-placed Bulls and four behind league-leaders, the Takahiwai Warriors, with one round left before the finals.
"The guys played well, we are slowly getting our structure back and it's good building to the finals," Knights coach Des Nordstrand said.
"We carted it well up the middle and then went out wide, most of our tries were scored out wide."
Nordstrand commended his centre, Dominique Ormsby, who scored about four tries and helped set up a number of others.
The Bulls started the second half well with their first points coming in the form of a try just minutes after the restart, but once the powerful Otangarei unit came to life, the result was inevitable.
"By that stage, the Bulls had dropped their heads a bit and couldn't get into game," Nordstrand said.
"They've got a good team so they'll be looking at what went wrong and getting ready for the semifinals."
The round's other game did not go ahead as the Horahora Broncos' player shortage caused them to default to Takahiwai. However, as defaults are automatically chalked up as a 30-0 loss for the defaulting team, this may have helped Horahora rather than hindered them.
In fifth and last-place on the table are the Portland Panthers, who have six points, -142 in points differential and play the Bulls in Dargaville this Saturday.
In fourth are the Broncos, who have eight points, -120 in points differential and play the Knights on Friday night in Otaika. The Bulls sit in third, also on eight points and -114 in points differential.
For Portland to sneak into the top four, they must win against the Bulls to earn two competition points, which may be a hard task considering the Bulls won their last encounter 36-34 a month ago in Portland.
In their win, Portland must beat the Bulls by more than 28 points to ensure themselves a place in the semifinals. Should they win but fail to do so by 28 points, the Panthers will have to rely on a Knights victory over the Broncos.
Furthermore, the points differential from Portland's win and Horahora's loss must be more than 22 points for Portland to finish in fourth. Anything less than this will see Portland eliminated from the third and fourth playoff match, the winner of which going on to face the loser of Takahiwai vs Otangarei.
Considering Takahiwai's recent form, most notably their 86-0 win over Portland on June 21, a 30-point loss for Horahora may have been a better outcome than had they taken the field on Saturday.
With the default on Saturday and a bye this coming weekend, Takahiwai will be two weeks without a game when they come up against Otangarei to decide who goes straight through to the grand final, a fact not lost on the Otangarei coach.
"[Takahiwai] are still not an easy team to beat, but we are hoping we can do it," Nordstrand said.
"The last time we played them, in the first half we were winning so if we can keep up our continuity for 80 minutes, we should have good chance."