The race to make for the semifinals in the Mitre 10 Cup Premiership looks over – but the race for the title is just heating up.
Victories of contrasting style for Tasman and Wellington today followed triumphs for Auckland and Canterbury yesterday, creating a significant gulf between the top four and the Premiership also-rans.
The leading quartet now sit eight points ahead of fifth-placed North Harbour, who will need to pull out something special if they want to disrupt the playoff places, with just three games remaining in the regular season.
Those final games will likely only decide the order of the top four. All of the contenders seem to be on a similar level, having combined stretches of dominance with moments of uncertainty throughout their season to date.
Tasman managed to display both traits within the span of 80 minutes this afternoon, shining early to take a 21-0 lead over Counties Manukau, before then having to hold on for dear life to a 21-19 victory.
Fullback Will Jordan was in electric form again for the Mako, running for 180 metres and beating eight defenders, and his runaway try looked to have given Tasman an unattainable buffer. However, Counties – who had spent just 30 seconds in the Mako 22 in the first half – suddenly set up camp there.
Two tries put them within touching distance, before Tevita Nabura crossed in the corner with three minutes to go. However, the potential game-tying conversion was missed, and one last Counties salvo wasn't enough as Tasman held on to move into second on the ladder, one point behind Auckland, who have a game in hand on the rest of the top four.
Wellington sit handily in third after thrashing the hapless Manawatu 49-7. Unlike Tasman's deceiving start, this game truly was over by halftime, with Wellington running in five first half tries.
The pick of the bunch came from Ben Lam, who showcased his old 100 metre sprinting skills by dusting the Manawatu defence in a stunning length of the field counter-attack. That was merely a smidgen of the ridiculous 890 running metres Wellington ended up racking up, with Manawatu missing 46 tackles in an insipid performance.
The only resistance stopping a larger rout turned out to be the boot of Wellington first five Jackson Garden-Bachop, who remarkably missed six straight conversions. Eventually, Trent Renata took over, avoiding any obscure records by finally nailing the extras on his side's seventh attempt.
Manawatu, who are lucky Southland exist, have been easily the disappointment of the competition, but scored a consolation try to avoid being the first team held scoreless this season.
Tasman 21 (Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta, Wyatt Crockett, Will Jordan tries; Mitch Hunt 3 cons)
Counties Manukau 19 (Sione Molia, Joe Royal, Tevita Nabura tries; Luteru Laulala 2 cons)
Wellington 49 (Ben Lam 2, Thomas Waldrom, Mateaki Kafatolu, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, James Blackwell, Asafo Aumua, Isaia Walker-Leawere, Peter Umaga-Jensen tries; Trent Renata 2 cons)
Manawatu 7 (Brice Henderson try; Sam Malcolm con)