Both Dave Hoskin Carriers Marist and Wanganui Car Centre Kaierau are feeling the heat as the fight for fourth begins in earnest tomorrow when Tasman Tanning Premier resumes transmission.
After the Queen's Birthday Weekend break for the Town vs Country representative trial, both Whanganui clubs can now take stock of Byfords Redimix Taihape upsetting the apple cart with their important 39-14 win over Waverley Harvesting Border on May 26, which propelled Taihape to the top of a now very congested points table.
Previously, Marist and Kaierau had figured the usual top three – Border, Black Bull Liquor Pirates and McCarthy's Transport Ruapehu – would likely take most points on offer, while they and Taihape would then finish the round robin with a mini-tournament of matches against each other over three weeks to see who gets the final coveted spot for the semifinals.
Kaierau especially were feeling confident they could make a late charge, after an excellent underdog effort in their previous two games to narrowly beat Ruapehu and then draw with Pirates.
But Taihape, the quiet grinders out east, picking up maximum points and the Grand Hotel Challenge Shield against Border has thrown the spanner in the works, given they can extend their lead with another all-but guaranteed five points this weekend against Settler's Honey Ngamatapouri.
Meanwhile, Kaierau heads up to Waverley to face a Border team determined to get back into a home semifinal spots, while Marist have the Spriggens Park derby with Pirates.
"Taihape winning certainly didn't do us any favours," said Kaierau coach Denis Edwards.
"Every game counts alright. Its going to be close for that third to fourth."
Kaierau paid the price against Pirates as halfback Cameron Davies and flanker Cade Robinson were ruled out of the representative trial with injury, which was further exasperated when Town lock Matt Ashworth was helped off with a leg injury in that Friday night fixture.
Ashworth is now out while Edwards said Davies and Robinson are 50-50, neither having trained on Tuesday.
In addition, influential midfielder John Kilisi has made a two week trip back to Samoa.
None of this is ideal when facing a Border team who beat them 29-10 in April, although a seven pointer right on fulltime blew the scoreline out slightly.
"You're only as good as your bench. We just have to front up. No excuses," said Edwards.
One bright spot is the imminent return of NZ Heartland Under 19 player Ethan Robinson, who has been stalking the sidelines and even having his name added honorarily to match programmes ever since hurting his shoulder in a March preseason match.
"I'm confident Ethan will get on the field at some stage," said Edwards.
The game will match up the two Town fullbacks and current No1 and 2 on the Premier points table in Border's Nick Harding (96) and Kaierau's Shandon Scott (76).
Having picked up their mandatory five points against Ngamatapouri and Harvey Round Motors Ratana, Marist now start down 'murderers row' against the rest of the Top 6 for the remainder of the round robin, currently sitting four points behind neighbours Pirates.
"We've got people back on deck now, good to have the 22 again," said coach Jerome McCrea.
After struggling for quality backs in an injury mini-crisis, Marist are relieved by the long anticipated arrival in Whanganui of Pene Nabainivalu, the veteran with 89 first class caps for Buller.
"Another specialist midfielder. It's just great, that experience," said McCrea.
Vital lock Sam Madams has recovered from his wrist injury, while McCrea got to have a good look at some of Pirates speedy outside backs and ball running forwards like Raymond Salu and Emile Fanene when he coached them in the Town squad last week.
"A few of them are bloody great players, it was good to be a part of it," he said.
"It's going to be a hell of a game, and you look at the points table for everyone, every game is important."
Marist certainly want a better performance than their 27-17 loss to Pirates on April 7 in a very dour game of rugby with some contentious referee calls that left both teams unsatisfied.
In the other game this weekend, Ratana will host Ruapehu at Marton Park, with the mountain men also looking to consolidate their second spot on the points table.