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It's tough at the top; just ask Tasman Tanning Senior's seven-time champions and currently undefeated Kelso Hunterville, as the competition enters the decisive run towards the playoffs.
The Queen's Birthday Weekend break was good for Hunterville to take stock and heal up after seven straight victories had put them back in the familiar position of competition frontrunners - following on from rebuilding in the time of Covid last year with a fifth place finish.
However, with the return of the semifinal format, after last year's straight Top 2 final, Hunterville do not have an easy glide into July, with three of their remaining four games being away fixtures.
The road schedule includes both 2020 finalists in defending champions Harvey Round Motors Ratana and long-time rival Ali Arc Logistics-DNA Kennels Marist Celtic.
"Ruapehu as well – who has shown a late show as well," said Hunterville coach Greg Parkes of this week's opponent.
"Ratana in the Pa, it will be a good test for both sides.
"We've had the same sort of crew, except for those two that have come in.
"We're playing some good footy."
Coming in from Manawatu clubs have been loose forward Zane Te Rangi and former Kaierau junior Blair Osborne, the latter hopefully back this Saturday after three weeks off with a leg injury.
"It's good to have a guy like him working with the guys alongside him – working guys into holes."
Parkes pointed out that Hunterville's advantage, or disadvantage, is that they have always had an excess of loosies – Te Rangi supported by the club's franchise player George Gardner, alongside Brent Illston and six-year veteran Sean Kelly.
But now, even with Osborne out, they have depth in the midfield and outside backs, with the coach's brother Scott Parkes holding it all together.
"They know the holes to hit and where the game plan can go too."
Veterans are at a premium after Aidan Keogh (shoulder) and Patrick Henderson (knee) had their season ended, while Nick Kipling (hamstring) is working his way back.
Parkes' will look to 2021 captain Sheamus Murphy, prop Jamie Brett and lock Hamish Kellar, a Manawatu rep at junior level, to hold the line.
"The next four games, we'll take each game on its merits.
"In club rugby, you only need 3-4 key injuries, and you'll have to call upon the rest of your troops [to lift]."
The Senior draw is:
June 12, 1pm kickoffs (unless noted): Marist Buffalos vs Counties, Spriggens Park; Utiku Old Boys vs Taihape, Memorial Park (2.30pm); Ratana vs Marton, Ratana Pa; Ruapehu vs Hunterville, Rochfort Park; Kaierau vs Border, Country Club; Pirates vs Marist Celtic, Spriggens Park (2.30pm).
Around the grounds
The St Johns Whanganui Metro side maintained their eight-point lead on top of the MRU Colts points table without even having to put on their boots after a default win over Feilding Old Boys-Oroua on Saturday. Old Boys-Oroua was lucky to keep their place in the Top 4 after fifth-placed Freyberg Old Boys lost narrowly to Massey University RFC, 17-15.
Whanganui Collegiate moved into top spot onto on the CNI points table, at least temporarily, after two midweek wins at home. Last Wednesday saw a 24-15 win over Taranaki's Francis Douglas Memorial College, which was followed by a 17-6 victory over Rathkeale College this week.
Cullinane College 1st XV made a strong start to the MRU Premier Girls grade with a 32-19 win over Palmerston North Girls High last Wednesday. It was a tough day for the Whanganui High School 1st XV, losing 127-0 to Manukura.
After a break for the long weekend, the schoolboys resume on Saturday.