Athletic and Rangers. Rangers and Athletic.

Say what you will about current Lotto Federation League leaders Palmerston North Marist coming down from Central League this season, or the unexpected rise of the "People's Team" North End AFC as title contenders, but today's match at Wembley Park between the GJ Gardner Wanganui Athletic and their Taranaki opposition is the true rivalry for this division.

North End's upset loss to Massey FC at the start of the second round last Saturday has shone a spotlight on just how crucial Athletic's 1-0 defeat to Rangers was back on April 14 in New Plymouth.

Three competition points went begging on that occasion after a mucky game, and had Athletic pulled the match out, they would currently be ahead of North End in second place on the league table, while approaching touching distance of leaders Marist with an extra game in hand.


Going back to 2014 when Athletic lost a controversial Lotto Federation Cup final to Team Taranaki – the now-defunct side which was fed by Rangers players and then in turn reinforced them in later seasons for Cup fixtures – any Athletic success always seems to be at their northern rivals expense and vice versa.

Athletic already got some payback for April's defeat by dominating Rangers 3-1 in the Chatham Cup preliminary round on Anzac Day, after their neighbours Versatile Wanganui City did them a big favour by running the northerners ragged five days earlier with a 3-2 upset league win.

It tells a similar story to 2017.

Athletic ultimately claimed superiority in the rivalry as despite dropping the first match (2-1) and then losing a heartbreaking Chatham Cup extra time war (5-4), they then came roaring back against Rangers with a 5-4 win and then a 5-0 hammering in their other league games.

But even here, Rangers had the last laugh, as they still finished ahead of Athletic in second place after the Whanganui side stumbled against lower tier teams in their last two games and couldn't manage a solitary point – coach Jason King needing some alone time after the final loss to Gisborne Thistle in Napier.

King said the origins of the Rangers feud go back a number of years when several expat Whanganui players headed north to seek greener pastures, a trend continued when the talented Josh Smith played for Team Taranaki despite still living at home.

"There's always that little connection there somewhere.

"Even before I took over and Rangers were just in Premier, there was always that little rivalry and a bit of banter," King said.


"It's a well-played match in the right spirit, but certainly it has an edge."

It really is all about the win – even Athletic's derby matches with Wanganui City have taken on a more respectful tone in recent seasons, which is helped by the fact King and City coach Kelvin Francis are friends and representative co-coaches, sharing a vision of wanting the best for football in Whanganui all-around.

Case in point; after last weekend's riveting 3-2 win by Athletic over City, Francis gave Athletic his blessing in the aftermatch function.

"He said, 'make sure next weekend you give Rangers hell because they don't like coming to Wembley'," said King.

"These guys from up north, they want to come down here? We'll send them home with their tails between their legs."

Athletic still have to do without Ryan Holden, who is back in England, however Kelvin Hove can juggle his work commitments to play the full 90 minutes.

The big blow is Josh Parker, ruled out for the season with concussion after an incident in town following last weekend's match.

"It's a real shame, that game was the first one back since he did his hamstring," said King.

Rangers have a new coach and King acknowledges there could be some fresh faces in their lineup, however a motivated Athletic can only play whoever turns up and he is determined they will not kneecap their own chances like they did at the Merrilands Domain.

"We're a better team than to do that again."

King is also expecting Francis to bring him back some notes from their away clash with North End at Skoglund Park today, as their townmates would love nothing better than to reverse their own narrow defeat in the first round, 4-3 at Wembley.

However, Cup football, injuries and suspension have taken their toll.

"We are struggling for numbers big time this week," said Francis.

After bravely gutting out his injury for the derby fixture, Kyle Graham-Luke has nothing left to give.

"The swelling in his ankle still hasn't gone down."

In addition the Hussey brothers – Ben and Cameron – are not available, while Jake Lockett has rugby commitments and after five yellow cards in seven games, the aggressive Josh Jonas has to sit out for the week.

"You play at the back, you expect a yellow card," said Francis.

After volunteering at the last minute last weekend, Adrian Ngaau is considering the trip but does have family commitments, and Francis has opted not to ask Chris Annabell to again juggle his loyalties to the City Hammers.

"Chris has stood up for us and he hasn't let anyone down.

"We'll go there and give it everything we've got."

Barring a reshuffle if Francis could secure two players for the bench, Simon Peterson will start in the midfield, while Thomas Sinton is back after his Christchurch trip, Marcus Jones is fit again, while Eli Fleming is also confirmed to travel.

But with keeper Glen Graham not feeling well, Francis admitted the arrival of his new pair of gloves in the mail from England is timely.

"It's been a while, but I've been training this week," he said.

Remembering April when City had to play a man down after Sinton's red card, Francis said they spent 30 minutes of a session with him in goal to plan on effective defence of corners, given Athletic got the crucial score last weekend that way and it spelled their downfall last time with North End.

Both league games start at 2.45pm.

In the Horizons Premiership, GJ Gardners Athletic Reserves meet North End AFC Reserves on Wembley Park No2 at 2.45pm, while tomorrow in the GR Engineering Women's Federation League, Football Whanganui are away to New Plymouth Girls High at Peringa Park at 1pm.