They are the self-coached team of Tasman Tanning Premier and Byford's Readimix Taihape acknowledge they have "popped out" of the pack as they prepare for tomorrow's vital home clash with neighbours McCarthy's Transport Ruapehu.

In an impossibly tight Top 4, the winner of the No1 vs No2 game will leave Memorial Park with the Grand Hotel Challenge Shield, not to mention the Northern Wanganui domestic crown, while the loser could fall as far back as fourth on the table, with Waverley Harvesting Border and Black Bull Liquor Pirates snapping at their heels.

"It's the battle of the country teams. It was the second game we emphasised and targeted, after that Border game," said player-coach Dane Whale.

Unexpected table leaders, Taihape got everyone's attention with their 39-14 victory over previous Shield holders Border on May 26, to say nothing of their 17-10 away win over Ruapehu in their previous meeting at Rochfort Park on April 14.

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On that day, which was unfortunately marred slightly after an issue between the referee and home supporters, the always-mobile Taihape squad moved the heavier but slightly less experienced Ruapehu forwards around the park, as the mountain team has been introducing a new-look front row this campaign.

However, having won every first round match between the sides since 2015, Taihape have only once beaten Ruapehu twice in a season (2016) and Whale is expecting his northern neighbours to bring the intensity tomorrow.

"Everything is week to week, but it has been in the back of my mind, this second home game.

"I've heard a little whisper Peter Rowe might be putting the jersey back on.

"It'd be cool to see him again. I loved to play against Pete, there's a bit of niggle.

"His heart bleeds that club."

Rowe made yet another comeback last weekend in the 52-7 win over Harvey Round Motors Ratana, covering lock, while Ruapehu tried to give some rest time to their six players who were due to turn out for the Gain Line XV on Wednesday night.

Taihape also have their share of players backing up in the frontrowers of Peter Travis Hay-Horton and Dylan Gallien, along with young flanker Lennox Shanks.

Whale, who has played plenty of midweek representative matches before backing up for Saturday club games, said he got good feedback on how the trio had performed.

"The youngest guys in [our] team, they'll be right.

"I told them to go hard. It's just what you've got to do if you want to play rep footy.

"We trained just as hard as we would on Tuesday and they didn't hold back."

Taihape need a solid performance as this weekend marks their final home game of the round before they go on a tough Whanganui township schedule against Pirates, Wanganui Car Centre Kaierau and Dave Hoskin Carriers Marist.

"Get every point you can at the moment, it's a good little comp," Whale said.

Outside back Jaye Flaws was in fine touch last weekend with four tries against Settler's Honey Ngamatapouri, while Taihape have a luxury of goalkickers as Whale can switch with Te Rangi Tapu McLeod.

Taihape's success has really put the pressure on everyone else, as Marist now find themselves in do-or-die mode when Border comes to Spriggens Park tomorrow, having recovered well since the Taihape loss by putting over 50 points on Kaierau, with fullback Nick Harding clicking well over 100 points and likely to finish as Premier's top scorer for the third straight year.

After three intense matches in a row with top sides, Kaierau make the trip up the Waitotara Valley to face Ngamatapouri, and must emulate Taihape by bringing home five points if they want to keep their threadbare playoff hopes alive.

Meanwhile, Pirates will be confident of keeping pace with whichever teams finish the round in 1st and 2nd when they face the winless Ratana in Marton.