Brought to you by Wanganui Rugby
Cold hard math suggests the Dave Hoskin Carriers Marist vs Settler's Honey Ngamatapouri clash will be season defining for their Tasman Tanning Premier campaigns on Saturday.
At the completion of the first round, there are two distinct playoff races under way – Top 3 and Bottom 3 - with Marist and Ngamatapouri separated by three points in the battle for the final semifinal spot.
Baring a late season comeback by McCarthy Transport Ruapehu, who looked like they might come out of hibernation in the final quarter against Byfords Readimix Taihape, either 4-5 points in this Spriggens Park match could see the winner through - given the odds of other successes against the leading clubs are slim.
And it's still an important milestone – Ngamatapouri have yet to make the Premier semifinals since their promotion from Senior in 2017, which was the same season Marist last qualified for the playoffs.
The opposing coaches in Ngamatapouri's Danny Tamehana and Marist's Travers Hopkins are in complete agreement it's now or never.
"Like you say, it's anyone's game so it's going to be a good one for both teams," said Tamehana.
"There's no other way to describe it. If we don't pick up a win, it's going to make the season extremely hard," concurred Hopkins.
In a case of opposites attack, Ngamatapouri just clung on up the Waitotara Valley in the July 4 meeting - 21-16 in a match where their Fijian game-breakers created three tries against the run of play and the set piece statistics.
"Last game we were behind the 8-ball the entire time, we weren't comfortable at any time," said Tamehana.
"We had three guys who sort of made something out of nothing."
Marist was on Ngamatapouri's tryline for most of the final 15 minutes, but couldn't break through for the matchwinner.
"That's what it came down to - some key moments they capitalised on, got points at the right time," said Hopkins.
"I felt we controlled huge parts of that game."
Both sides went on to defeat Ruapehu, but otherwise had little success with the leading clubs, no better evidenced than last weekend when Marist got pumped by Wanganui Car Centre Kaierau 54-0, while Ngamatapouri mentally checked out against a ruthless Waverley Harvesting Border, to the tune of 90-0.
However, it is worth noting Tamehana had somewhat accepted the inevitable – two leading players in Steelform Wanganui representatives Bryn Hudson and Samu Kubunavanua only played the final quarter.
"They were carrying injuries so it wasn't worth wasting them for 80 minutes.
"It was this week's one I really wanted them."
This all but confirmed Hopkins' suspicions that Saturday's game is being targeted.
"They're a far better side than that. Without knowing who did or didn't play, I wondered."
With two training sessions to pick up the pieces, Tamehana feels his side needs a stronger start this time with Marist, which will come from smarter tactics.
After two opening wins, on July 18 Ngamatapouri weren't brought down to earth 69-12 by Kaierau, who showed them the importance of accurate tactical kicking.
Tamehana encourages his players to do extra work on those fundamental skills, rather than relying on their running game, before they come to his structure sessions alongside assistant Sheldon Pakinga-Manhire, the talented fullback not playing this season.
"I expect the boys, not just in my time, but their own time, better do that individual stuff. Take a ball home with them.
"They haven't played with structure for such a long time. It's alright for moments [in games].
"It's a work in progress. We're getting there."
There's nothing like getting embarrassed by your cross-town neighbours to trigger group discussions, and Hopkins said after the Kaierau loss his side chatted about the need for everyone to keep working hard so others don't feel drained by picking up the slack.
"The boys were pretty open and honest about where they were."
Helping lead those chats is the iron-cast veteran Ricky Alabaster, who if the math of lock Brad O'Leary stands up to scrutiny, has played a club rugby match in each of the past four decades.
That is figured by a debut in the very late 1990's, and then whether you consider 2020 the start of a new decade – as per Gregorian calendars with the 0 - or prefer the Christian recognition of 1AD, as in 2021.
Regardless, the 2006-10 Wanganui representative Alabaster, who has played for multiple local clubs across the Metropolitan and Northern subunions, brings priceless knowledge to assist Hopkins in his first year coaching Premier.
"Just incalculable for us the last three weeks," he said.
"With a team of young guys like ourselves, our more experienced having [retired] or not being available, that experience is invaluable. We appreciate what he's done for us."
In the other Premier games, Border will take their red-hot form up under the mountain to meet Ruapehu at Rochfort Park, while the Taihape vs Kaierau clash at Memorial Park is likely to be another thriller, given both sides' previous two meetings were decided by one point.
The draw is:
Premier (2.30pm kickoffs: Marist vs Ngamatapouri, Spriggens Park; Taihape vs Kaierau, Memorial Park; Ruapehu vs Border, Rochfort Park.