Brought to you by Wanganui Rugby
Saturday is derby day to finish off the first round of Tasman Tanning Premier rugby, as the two Northern sub-union teams find themselves meeting at opposite sides of the crossroads at Rochfort Park.
McCarthy Transport Ruapehu were unquestionably the Premier club of the 2010's - winning the Rosebowl Trophy four times from five grand finals - while down State Highway 1, Byfords Readimix Taihape were slowly developing their numbers and strengthening their resolve as a unit.
Now, Taihape come back to Ohakune as a battle hardened championship-winning team, while Ruapehu has suffered since the Covid-19 lockdown - trying to mould a handful of remaining veterans with fresh-faced teenagers to become a competitive side.
Taihape coach Tom Wells said his squad is humming along at training, enjoying his role even more than his debut 2019 season when the side came from fourth – losing to Ruapehu twice in pool play – to upsetting them 22-16 in the semifinal on their way to the title.
Victory on Saturday would give them an extraordinary 10th consecutive road win across two seasons, but Wells has enough bitter history at Rochfort as both a player and coach to take nothing for granted.
"It's probably our favourite game of the year, that's for sure," he said.
"Nothing like a good derby and we're looking forward to it.
"I watched a little bit of that [Ruapehu] game against Kaierau, and their forward pack is still there.
"It doesn't matter who's playing, with Ruapehu they will be tough."
Taihape got their first four-try bonus point of 2020 last weekend against Settler's Honey Ngamatapouri, 35-5, in a match where three regular backs were away.
"I thought we played bloody well – not the team to run up 60 points, but we're the hardest team to score points against, and at the end of the day that's what wins you championships when you get down to the end," said Wells.
Winger Ryan Karatau has done his job by finishing off team attacks for three tries in the past two games, while a handful of players who initially had other commitments are back to strengthen the bench.
"Even our forwards will be missing out as well.
"We just want our team to worry about ourselves – the structure is in place and we've got such an experienced group of guys now."
While they are no longer the team of even 12 months ago, Ruapehu have welcomed back some key figures which could make them a real spoiler opponent in the second round.
Quality backs Troy Brown, Corey Carmichael and Tautahi Rawiri all returned to active duty in the 34-14 loss to Wanganui Car Centre Kaierau, complementing a forward pack led by Gabriel Hakaraia, Campbell Hart and Jamie Hughes.
While departing playmaker Josh Fifita will be missed, Ruapehu will get back another Steelform Wanganui player in halfback Kahl Elers-Green.
"He was away at another competition, a bodybuilding competition in Tauranga, which got cancelled so we were able to get him in," said manager Mark Green.
Rumours of stalwart hooker Roman Tutauha's comeback remain unconfirmed - the veteran reportedly taking the lack of a Heartland Championship as an opportunity to heal up nagging injuries, including the arm he broke in 2018.
Still, the call of duty for the mountain club remains strong.
"You never know, we've still got one more training," said Green on Wednesday evening.
"We've sort of had a good forward pack, it's just getting our backline going.
"Everyone goes through a rebuilding phase. We've just got to do the best we can."
While underdogs, Ruapehu could yet have a big say in the weekend equation over who wins the season's first trophy – the Paul Mitchell Cup – which will be decided between Taihape, Kaierau and Waverley Harvesting Border, who are all separated by just one competition point.
Kaierau will defend the Grand Hotel Challenge Shield against Dave Hoskin Carriers Marist in a potentially feisty match at the Country Club, while Border will host the South Taranaki derby with Ngamatapouri at Dallison Park.
The draw is:
Premier (2.30pm kickoffs): Border vs Ngamatapouri, Dallison Park; Taihape vs Ruapehu, Rochfort Park; Kaierau vs Marist, Country Club.