There was an added tenseness behind the friendly chats and joking around during the Steelform Wanganui fitness session at Cooks Gardens on Wednesday evening.
The large get together was for all players likely to be in the frame for the Wanganui and the Development XV's come late July and early August, but for squad members from the top 5 club teams in the Tasman Tanning Premier grade, there is nothing in their sights beyond tomorrow afternoon.
It has been a long time since one regular season club match had so much riding on it as Byford's Readimix Taihape and Dave Hoskin Carriers Marist find themselves facing at Spriggens Park for the Grand Hotel Challenge Shield.
Neighbours in third and fourth on the table, with Waverley Harvesting Border only 1-2 points behind them and expected to win handsomely up in the Waitotara Valley against Settler's Honey Ngamatapouri, this truely is sudden death football come one week early.
After an uneven first round with several key losses, including 33-26 to Taihape on May 5, Marist have been running hard in the second round with only one last minute defeat to Black Bull Liquor Pirates, and will claim the Weekes Cup for most points from these seven games, along with their current ownership of the Shield.
But Taihape have been winning when it counts throughout the autumn and winter, their eight-point loss to Pirates two weeks ago not withstanding, and are fully aware that a win see them keep the Shield for 2018 and pocket the sponsor's cheque, plus make them safe for the semifinals with an outside shot it could even be a home playoff at Memorial Park.
Simply put, with Border looking secure fourth place, tomorrow's winner will get the Shield and the shot at championship glory, while the loser will get nothing.
"It's a quarterfinal, unless we can come to an agreement about a draw and bonus points and keep Border out," laughed Taihape player-coach Dane Whale.
Bonus points across both main games this weekend could prove crucial but Whale agreed trying to figure out the math from every possible scenario is too taxing.
"It's best not even thinking about it, and running it like a quarterfinal."
Both team's delivered last weekend under considerable pressure, as Taihape rebounded from the Pirates loss to see off Wanganui Car Centre Kaierau 34-10, while Marist went up to Ohakune and snatched a dynamic 28-8 win over Shield holders McCarthy's Transport Ruapehu – Marist having previously lost six straight years under the mountain.
Although Kaierau had fallen out of playoff contention the week before, Whale was pleased with his squad's composure to get the bonus point win and stay in the chase.
"We just sat back and wanted to simplify everything.
"It managed to work, just to get people in the game.
"When we're carrying, we're carrying, and when we're not, we're doing what we have to do.
"We think if we can hold onto the ball, we don't have to worry.
"This year when we've lost it's because we've played badly, caused our own demise."
Whale feels his team is better focusing internally than on Marist's impressive form – specificially their tight-five, which now has a lot of tall timber with representative lock Sam Madams playing blindside flanker to accomodate both Brad O'Leary and Taione Ratu as locks.
But the exception to that rule is Whale's old mucker Cameron Crowley, who tore Ruapehu apart last Saturday when they persisted with aimless kicks up the centre of pitch, offering the crafty veteran a broken defensive line with gaps aplenty.
"We've set it up to give them absolutely nothing," said Whale.
"If we kick it's going out, or we've got someone going at the ball."
This unpredictable season has taken another twist as table leaders Pirates head up to Ohakune to face Ruapehu in the top of the table clash.
Having won the Paul Mitchell Cup for the first round of games and now safe for a home semifinal, which is what their mountain men opposition are desperate to maintain, Pirates have been stung by the departure of their three outstanding Samoan imports.
Officialdom came calling regarding work visas as halfback Fa'alele Iosua, prop Raymond Salu, and flanker Emile Fanene – the form players in their positions across all Premier rugby – had to return home before last weekend's comfortable win home win over Ngamatapouri.
Although Pirates have good depth in their forwards while club stalwart Ricky Boniface can slot comfortably back into halfback, all three young Samoans have been gamebreakers this season, able to lay on tries against the run of play for a side which has only lost once in 2018 and beat Ruapehu 12-10 in May.
The absences may leave Pirates vunerable across the two weekends that truly count this month.
Border, having put 88 points on wooden spooners Harvey Round Motors Ratana last Saturday, will back themselves on the drive up to meet Ngamatapouri in the South Taranaki derby, having won 47-10 under lights in their previous matchup.
While there may seem like there is not much on the line when Ratana host Kaierau at Marton Park, trying telling that to home team prop Shade Tuaine-Whanau, or visiting halfback Cameron Davies.
With 15 points each, Tuaine-Whanau and Davies are tied for the lead in the Grand Hotel Irish Bar's Most Valuable Player standings heading into this last weekend, followed by Davies' team mate Shandon Scott on 12 in a three-way tie with Ruapehu's Jamie Hughes and Border's Kamipeli Latu.
This season has been the first for the format where the opposition choose players from the other team to receive three MVP points through to one, so it will be interesting to see how the final tallies shake themselves out.