Tasman Tanning Premier finals rugby came a week early at Dallison Park on Saturday as Waverley Harvesting Border overcame a tight arm-wrestle with Dave Hoskin Carriers Marist 20-12.
Regaining the Grand Hotel Challenge Shield they first won in March, Border confirmed their spot as top qualifier for the semifinals, as ultimately the Top 4 positions did not change after the weekend due to both the McCarthy's Transport Ruapehu and Black Bull Liquor Pirates games being called off on Thursday, after the snowfall and heavy wet weather in the northern country areas.
Therefore, all eyes were on Dallison Park for the battle of No1 vs No2, with the prospect raised of these sides meeting again in a fortnight, as the season record now stands at 1-1 between them after Border avenged their only defeat at Spriggens Park in May.
For two squads who scored 568 and 562 points respectively coming into the match through their well-drilled and expansive backlines, each were able to pump the other's breaks with determined defence and exerting pressure - a hallmark of Premier finals games where tryscoring opportunities plummet from dozens to a handful.
Marist outscored Border two tries to one in the first half, including talisman second-five Steelie Koro crossing the line on the back of around 14 phases of buildup, as did Border's representative prop Hamish Mellow for the home team after similar control.
Taking a 14-12 advantage into the break through the accurate boot of fullback Nick Harding, who missed a couple of attempts but got the ones that counted, Border forced Marist into a match of attrition - getting the better of territory through a committed performance by the pack, although Marist managed to protect their line at every turn.
Two more penalty kicks by Harding were all that either side could add in the last 40 minutes of rugby, seeing Border clear of danger.
"There was intent to throw the ball around, but both teams were up to the task," said Border coach Justin Lock.
"The top two teams the week out before the semis, she was definitely finals come early.
"We had to go to work, there's no doubt about it, harder than we had to all year.
"We controlled a lot of territory in the game. Our set piece was going really well.
"Well, in the first half with the scrum and the lineout. The second half the lineout was not as good.
"We interrupted their ball."
Marist coach Jason Hamlin was proud of his team's defence against the now full-strength competition leaders, but in the second stanza his side became a little more reactive and could not turn the momentum back their way for offence.
"We couldn't really maintain much ball, any possession in the second half.
"When we held the ball, we were able to do a few things, but they were few and far between.
"They were getting into a defensive pattern, but just some discipline slipped at times."
"Just couldn't [connect with] the last pass. But that was due to [Border] too. Good pressure."
Marist would rue a series of costly penalties, although both teams had infringement issues.
After repeated team warnings, aggressive Border flanker Angus Middleton tried one time too many and was sinbinned for offside, while Marist also lost halfback Matt Koubaridis to a yellow card for taking a player out in the air on a high kick.
"I've got the footage. The guy jumped over his back, although he did land in a dangerous position," said Hamlin.
Koubaridis still had an excellent match, while No8 Taione Ratu made some very strong carries in the opening quarter, with his offloads causing havoc for the home side, although he was quieter by the physical second half.
Likewise, Marist fullback Cameron Crowley ripped his way through the defence in the early stages, getting Marist's other try.
For Border, Middleton was hard working throughout, as was No8 Renato Tikoilosomone as the pack laid the ground work from behind which halfback Lindsay Horrocks marshalled the troops.
With their two semifinal opponents having taken an unplanned break, both the leading teams will use Saturday as excellent preparation for sudden death rugby, coming through the match with no further injury concerns.
"Having to play hard games at this time of year is good," said Lock.
Hamlin felt the same.
"At the start of the year, we asked for a home semifinal, and we got that."
Grand Hotel Challenge Shield - Waverley Harvesting Border 20 (Hamish Mellow try; Nick Harding 5 pen) bt Dave Hoskin Carriers Marist 12 (Cameron Crowley, Steelie Koro tries; Mitchell Millar con). HT: 14-12.