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3 days ago
Round four of the Bartercard Cup this weekend pitches together two of the three unbeaten teams in the competition.
The match of the weekend is on Saturday at Stanmore Bay, Whangaparaoa, when the Hibiscus Coast Raiders host Wellington.
The team from the capital has made a great start to the season with three wins under their belts, including a fine victory over Otahuhu two weeks ago.
Coach Gerard stokes is moulding together a very competitive side with a number of players new to this level of football.
"Each game is seen as a new challenge for my players," says Stokes, "they have to particularly get accustomed to the travel and see each game as setting something of a benchmark to move on from."
And the trip North on Saturday will be a huge challenge and probably comes earlier than they would like. However as Stokes points out the championship isn't won or lost in this part of the season, although the points on offer certainly help to get a decent position on the ladder in preparation for what lies ahead later in the season.
Wellington are pleased with the progress that they've made so far and in particular the team work that they've developed within their squad. They don't rely on any one individual but a couple of players who are standing out are front rower Fa'aliga Saumolia and centre Wesley Henry.
It will be Saumolia's biggest test to date on Saturday when he comes up against the best front rower in the competition on present form, Anthony Seu Seu. He will also oppose the Warrior contracted player Dallas Rennie.
Rennie's form so far has only been average so no doubt he'll be looking for a big one against Wellington.
For the Raiders, they'll want to ignore the score they achieved last week against the Bulls, as generally they would have been disappointed with many aspects of their game. If they continue with the form they displayed last Sunday they could come unstuck against a side like Wellington.
However I expect that they will quickly get themselves back into form and produce a more consistent display cutting out the silly errors that marred last week's match.
Although Wellington have got an unblemished record to date, I expect the Raiders will put an end to that and are likely to be twenty point winners.
The third unbeaten side is Mt Albert. They have their second consecutive home game on Saturday, this time against Manurewa Marlins. The Lions had a great forty minutes against the Tornadoes in round two but last week, against Northcote, they only played well in parts. However they did enough to win and I would expect them to do so again this week.
If Hutch Maiava and Keneti Asiata return from injury, their combination with Fui Fui Moi Moi, the Fa'alogo brothers, David and Sala, Paea Kailea and Sione Pouha, makes them potentially the best pack in the competition.
They should be too strong for the Marlins.
The other Saturday game is between the Eastern Tornadoes and Glenora Bears at Paparoa Park.
The Tornadoes will be relieved to have picked up two points from their win over the Marlins last week, however they looked like they could be run down in the second half. They'll find the Bears to be a team that's unlikely to allow them such a generous start as they have enjoyed in their last two games and that being the case they could find themselves unable to last the distance. The Bears mightn't have the flare of the Tornadoes but they looked to be better conditioned.
It's for that reason I'm picking a narrow with to the boys from West Auckland.
There are another three games on Sunday.
At Arena Manawatu, in Palmerston North, The Central Falcons take on Otahuhu.
I'm not so sure the Leopards are a great traveling side. Their form to-date has been a little like the Tornadoes. They haven't shown that they can go a full eighty minutes. Some might argue that they don't have to be in top condition at this stage of the season and by the time we get to the business end they'll be in top shape.
However I'd suggest the fitter teams will continue to get fitter and those teams in the winning frame of mind are going to be harder to topple.
There's no point peaking later in the year if you haven't picked up sufficient points throughout the season to actually make it into the play-offs.
However the Leopards have had their first win and they do have some very good players. If they've got their mind on the job I expect them to come away with another two points. The Falcons won't be a pushover though and on their home turf they'll be dead keen to impress the local supporters.
Player such as Jason Bell, the Lomax's and Michael Price are as good as any and will cause problems if allowed to run. Their loss last week to Wellington indicates to me that against the Leopards they may be about 10 points behind them.
The Canterbury Bulls are another home side that looks like they'll go down to the visitors. They host Marist/Richmond. While the Brothers have been a little disappointing to-date they look like a side that is going to put something decent together and that might just be on Sunday.
The Bulls will still be licking their wounds from the toweling they received at the hands of the Raiders and it's unlikely, even at home, if they'll recover in time to beat the Brothers. Jamie Cook is one player who looks to be coming right and he's a player who has the ability to turn a game.
With the support of players such as Mark Passi, Ricky Henry and Karl Guttenbeil they should be ten point winners.
There will be much interest in the game at Birkenhead between the Northcote Tigers and Taranaki Wildcats.
Both teams have surprised in their own way. The Tigers are a new look team who rely mainly on the players from last year's successful Fox Memorial team, winners of the Auckland club championship.
The Wildcats are new to the Bartercard Cup and they have drawn their last two matches against the more fancied Glenora Bears and Manurewa Marlins.
The question they have to answer is if they can cope with the travel also.
In their season opener against Mt Albert they showed that they wouldn't lie down and they certainly seem to have shown improvement in each game they've played.
However against Northcote they'll be up against a team that looks to be in pretty good form. Last week their bench looked a little stronger. With front rowers Christian Fa'avae and twenty year old Damon Trott injecting themselves into the game after the first twenty minutes they looked to be a bit stronger up front. Both these two look to have earned themselves a starting position.
Although in saying that Fa'avae will have to curb his excitement just a little while maintaining his enthusiasm as he best serves his team on the paddock, not in the bin.
Once again halves Jared Trott and Ken McIntosh will be looking to control the game and give their big centres, Lamond Copestake and Harry Aonga plenty of opportunities to create havoc out wide.
The Tigers should be twelve point victors.