Wanganui Vet Services Marist are hoping they can slip in under the concertina wire and ambush their much stronger opposition at the Central Districts finals of the National Club Championship (NCC) in Palmerston North this weekend.
After a disappointing local club season, following on from winning the 50-over Coastal Challenge Cup last summer, Marist have been looking forward to this trip to Fitzherbert Park and two days of Twenty20 matches as their high point of 2019-20.
Marist's title win in 2018-19 had earned them the right to play Taranaki's representative New Plymouth Marist United in the local NCC qualifier on December 22, and despite going into the away game at Pukekura Park in a big form slump, they pulled off a shock four wicket upset.
In previous seasons, the NCC competition was played in the 50-over format, but this year it was switched to Twenty20 by Auckland's Cornwell Cricket Club, who host the national finals, after NZ Cricket stopped funding the tournament.
This has also allowed a change in format for the Central Districts finals, as previously the four teams who qualified would each play one 50-over match on the Saturday, with only the two winning teams carrying on to play on the Sunday.
This year the four sides – Marist, Nelson's Stoke-Nayland, Palmerston North United and Napier Tech – will all play in a round-robin tournament of three matches each across Saturday and Sunday, with the top two sides then facing off in a final.
"It's quite good for everyone, especially the Nelson-Malborough team, that they're not coming for one game," said injured Marist skipper John McIlraith.
The shorter format, where momentum can change in just a few balls, might also allow Marist to spring some surprises like they did in December.
"I definitely think the way we've been playing this year, T20 will suit us," said McIlraith.
"T20, you just got to win two of three to make the final, and then you never know."
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Marist's away trip this weekend meant they tried to reschedule this weekend's final round-robin game of the Coastal Challenge against Lansdowne CC to today's Waitangi Day holiday, however the Wairarapa club has opted to default.
That left Marist with a 3-5-1 record to miss the semifinals, while lack of numbers due to their top players being on representative duties meant Marist did not make much impression on the local Bullocks Twenty20 competition, defaulting a couple of games.
"It's good that Coastal is so tight, means it's a good comp, [but for us] it's a bit of a 'what if' season," said McIlraith.
The final round of Coastal Challenge means Marist cannot have the services of Property Brokers United batsman and wicketkeeper Matt Simes, with his team in a must-win game against Levin Old Boys to make the playoffs.
Simes contributed with the bat as the one permitted import player during Marist's NCC win in December.
However, for that Pukekura Park game, Marist had been missing veteran Unreal Grass Wicket Wanganui batsmen Mark Fraser and Dominic Rayner, who are now coming off the high of beating Horowhenua-Kapiti in the Furlong Cup last weekend.
This weekend also might be the club swansong for Rayner, who retired from representative level and is still making the decision whether he will either continue his local cricket with Marist or return to his home Marton Saracens club.
Young bowlers Angus Dinwiddie and Hadleigh O'Leary, who was the batting hero against NPMU with two sixes in the last over, will play their last Marist games this summer before returning to university.
Despite Rayner and Fraser being available, bowling allrounder Nick Harding impressed when he was elevated to opener against NPMU, blasting a crucial 48 from 27 balls, and McIlraith said he is likely to retain the role this weekend.
For Marist's first two games on Saturday, they will have to do without both Craig Thorpe and, crucially, their accurate spinner and attacking batsman Zak O'Keefe, who are only available for Sunday.
McIlraith would have also loved to have their club-affiliated professional Ben Smith available, but he is on duty for the Central Districts Stags.
NCC rules allow teams to use a full 12 players – designating their 12th man as either a specialist bowler or batsman.
Napier Tech will start the tournament as favourites, having twice won the Central Districts qualifier under its old format.
Their XI includes several current or former Hawke's Bay and Stags representatives like Matt Edmondson, who scored a double century against Wanganui in November, and big-hitting former Black Cap Jesse Ryder, who has been a key man in their previous NCC campaigns.
"They're quite lucky that they have him in their club ranks," said McIlraith.
Marist's first game on Saturday will be against home side PN United at 11am, followed by Stoke-Nayland at 2.45pm.
They will face Napier Tech in the last round robin match at 10.30am on Sunday, with the final for the top two teams scheduled for 2.15pm.
The Marist squad is
Dominic Rayner, Chris Stewart, Andy Manoussos, Zak O'Keefe, Mark Fraser, Hamish Harding, Hadleigh O'Leary, Craig Thorpe, James Wilson, Angus Dinwiddie, Nick Harding, Sam O'Leary, Connor O'Leary, Thomas Redpath, Raponi Tofa.