Hawke's Bay United may well have ticked the box for three points at home in Napier today but it became blatantly obvious why Eastern Suburbs are perched in the top-four rungs of the national summer league ladder.
A youthful-looking Tim Payne-captained Lilly Whites, blessed with speed as well as showing skills and vision beyond their years, outplayed Thirsty Whale Bay United 4-1 in week 10 of the ISPS Handa Premiership match at Park Island.
If the hosts, a predominantly new-look unit of imports looking to find some cohesiveness, were caught on the hop in the opening-round 5-0 loss in Auckland they certainly had no excuses this afternoon after trailing 2-0 at halftime.
The favourites simply took ownership on the park and had too much possession and determination to infiltrate the Bay defence at will. Frankly, they left some goals out there although the hosts could have done better a couple of times, too.
The prudent would argue there was consistency in the visitors' home-and-away results but Bay United player/assistant coach Paul Ifill didn't agree it had exposed a gulf between the two teams.
"We just weren't at the races today," said Ifill, who didn't play today.
While he accepted Suburbs had their number again, he had difficulties trying to reconcile why Bay United were not the team of the past few rounds, after drawing against a higher-ranked Team Wellington before clinching three victories on the trot.
"Sometimes you just get teams that you can't deal with for whatever reasons so we'll go away and watch the video," he said, not comfortable to draw assertions after a game without footage.
It was frustrating, the former Wellington Phoenix maestro said, that Bay United were ever tight at any point of the game. Perhaps it was the absence of defender Daniel Allan, who was serving a match ban for accumulated yellow cards, but that would be too simplistic and wild to suggest one player could make such a difference.
"A lot of times they were getting straight shots over us and we couldn't deal with them," he lamented. "From the front to the back, we just weren't at it today."
Ifill said when facing a team of Suburbs' calibre and "you're not at it, that's what happens".
"In the past four weeks we have scored two goals a game and have strung 10 to 12 important passes to score goals.
"Today, I don't think we made six or seven passes at all so I don't know if it's because they are very good or where we needed to be."
Ifill brushed off suggestions of any mental scarring because of the first-round loss.
"Again, I don't think they were spectacular because we have played better teams such as team Wellington and the likes of Auckland."
However, he was thankful Bay United wouldn't have to face the Eastern Suburbs again this regular season.
"Look, they're a good side so don't think I'm taking anything away from them at all."
The Lily Whites went up 1-0 after a defensive blunder. Striker Andre de Jong pounced on the ball and pushed it past Bay United goalkeeper Mackenzie Waite in the 24th minute.
The hosts celebrated prematurely after striker Sam Mason-Smith had latched on to the ball after a goalmouth melee to poke it into the net but the fans' cheers were short lived after referee Cory Mills ruled the Bay United foragers had interfered with Eastern Suburbs' English import goalkeeper, Andrew Withers in the 29th minute.
However, it was a cut deeper for the Birhanu Taye-captained Bay United when Eastern Suburbs striker Callum McCowatt extended the lead to 2-0 when he surged into the 18m box only to have Waite thwart his attempt. But McCowatt regathered from the deflection, took the ball around the goalkeeper and popped it into the unmanned side of the goalmouth.
The game got a little testy soon after with Taye picking up a yellow card for what the referee deemed to be a crude tackle on De Jong.
Bay United coach Brett Angell, by then, was giving fourth official Gareth Sheehan an earful after Mills refused to give him an audience from the sideline.
Eastern Suburbs counterpart and former All White Danny Hay had a rueful smile on his face as his players on the field started remonstrating with Angell.
A couple of Bluewater Stadium fans got involved, one of them baiting Eastern Suburbs co-assistant coach and former All Whites striker Declan Edge who couldn't resist the temptation to openly exchange insults.
On almost the stroke of halftime, Lily Whites midfielder Dominic Woolridge came agonisingly close to adding more insult to injury when he beat Waite inside the box but Bay United left wing back Jorge Akers had the presence of mind to charged down the goal line to clear the ball from a gaping net amid a collective sigh of relief.
However, the caustic atmosphere prevailed after Mills blew his whistle for halftime. Angell, his assistant, Jamie Dunning, held a urgent meeting with the officials in pink as Hay and his stable tagged behind.
"Just don't forget, there are two teams out there not one," an irate fan from the grandstand barked at Mills as he walked down to his room.
When play resumed, Bay United had a promising move but Mason-Smith's feeble finish didn't challenge Whithers.
But the visitors were asking the questions again with a couple of raids catching the defence on the nap but this time Swedish import centreback Anders Eriksson came to the rescue twice.
Woolridge picked up a yellow card for a sprigs-up aerial tackle on Eriksson in the 58th minute.
Angell pulled out Japan import centre-mid Sho Goto and injected Jordan Lamb in the 61st minute.
After falling foul of the flags of referees' assistants, Edward Cook and Trent Pedley, for a good 15 minutes and a disallowed goal to De Jong, Elijah Just made good a through ball from just inside the halfway mark to outpace the defence before drilling it past Waite for a 3-0 lead in the 75th minute.
Bay United rang a rash of changes but that only hardened the visitors' resolve to up the tempo.
Six minutes later it was Owen Parker-Price's turn to break down the Bay United defence's spirit when he finished a worm burner in Just fashion to extend the lead to 4-0.
Taye collected a red card (after his second yellow) for a professional foul on De Jong in the 89th minute with striker Cory Chettleburgh slipping on the armband.
In three minutes of referee's time, with some patience and vision, midfielder Karan Mandair put Lamb down the right flank for a surge towards the goal line and a deft cross to Mason-Smith inside the top of the box for a crisp finish to make it 4-1 for a consolation goal.
A smiling Hay was pleased with the way his troops had responded, saying Angell often did a great job to fire up his players.
"Our performance was good last week because we dominated but it was nice to score a few goals," he said after a resurgent Tasman United held them scoreless.
Hay emphasised his side were young so what was pleasing was seeing them create chances even though they didn't always convert them into goals.
"Hopefully our finishing will come right with time but that's what you get with young players," he said, mindful it was only half way through the season so they weren't preoccupied with table positions and results.
Hay said Eastern Suburbs were about developing players and they had 14 Kiwis out there today.
"Look, we're trying to give Kiwi players the opportunity to shine and show people we're actually developing some good players in the country."
He said given the chance, home-grown talent had a platform to showcase their skills to represent their country all the way to the All Whites' level.