MASSETTI CUP: THE RUN HOME
There’s just four rounds remaining in the 2018 Massetti Cup regular season. We sum up how the season has unfolded so far for all eight clubs and what they need to do to feature in the playoffs.
LINWOOD KEAS (1st, 20 points)
The Keas’ bid for a third straight premiership could hardly be travelling more impressively, going unbeaten in their 10 outings so far. Seven of their victories have come by margins of 16 or more and their massive points differential of +210 means two more wins virtually guarantees them top spot heading into the finals.
But their two biggest challengers for Massetti Cup supremacy this year – Hornby and Northern – both pushed them hard during the first round. The Panthers fell short 20-12 in Round 1, while the Bulldogs also came within eight points of the Keas, going down 14-6 in Round 5.
They play both title hopefuls again in the next fortnight.
The likes of Will Yeow, Ben Ilalio and Erwin Sauni have been in outstanding tryscoring touch, with an experienced pack laying a typically sound platform for the Andrew Auimatagi-coached side. But will the winning streak become an albatross around Linwood’s neck?
REMAINING GAMES: Panthers (H), Bulldogs (H), Hornets (A), Tigers (H)
HORNBY PANTHERS (2nd, 16 points)
The Panthers, runners-up in 2016-17, may be in second place with a strong 8-2 record, but they have endured an extraordinary number of nail-biters this season.
Six of their games have been decided by margins of eight points or less, including three victories by less than a converted try. A 24-20 home loss to Northern rattled Hornby’s grand finalist-elect status, while in the wake of a nervy 36-30 win over Papanui last weekend (after leading 28-0) coach Jed Lawrie will be searching for 80-minute consistency from his squad as the season gets towards the pointy end.
Powerhouse winger Charlie Charlie has been a standout for a Panthers side that has battled more than their fair share of injuries, posting nine tries in as many games.
A showdown with the Keas at Linwood Park this Saturday in the catch-up Round 8 is the perfect opportunity to reassert their title credentials. Meanwhile, they’ll be hell-bent on winning their last three games to remain in second place and get a crucial second bite at the playoffs cherry.
Curiously, after going unbeaten at home in 2017, they have won all of their away games to date this season.
REMAINING GAMES: Keas (A), Lions (A), Eagles (H), Hornets (H)
NORTHERN BULLDOGS (3rd, 16 points)
The Bulldogs have been the big movers in 2018 after acquiring multiple grand final-winning coach Brent Ringdahl and veterans Izic Placid and Chris and Jason Bamford.
After gutsy losses to heavyweights Hornby and Linwood in the opening five weeks of the Massetti Cup, Northern have won five straight games – including a stirring 24-20 away win over the Panthers two weeks ago – to sit on an 8-2 record.
They are just two for-and-against points shy of the Panthers in what shapes as a frantic race for second spot…or even first if the Keas start stumbling.
Chris Bamford, a grand finalist previously with Linwood and Celebration, has been on fire in the Bulldogs’ front-row with 10 tries in 10 games. The club’s first finals appearance since 2009 already assured, the Murphy Park faithful will be riding their team’s bid for their first grand final in 11 years.
Their Round 12 rematch with Linwood on July 14 shapes as another key litmus test of their progress.
REMAINING GAMES: Eagles (A), Keas (A), Tigers (H), Lions (A)
HALSWELL HORNETS (4th, 9 points)
After finishing last in 2016 and ’17, Rob Faalilo’s Hornets find themselves in the box-seat for the last finals spot with four rounds to go. It’s been quite the turnaround after starting the year 0-2.
But they’re far from home and hosed as far as the playoffs are concerned, with just three points separating them from the bottom half of the ladder and clashes with the Keas and Panthers in the last two rounds to come.
Attack has been Halswell’s strength – they rank third for points scored at 26.6 per game. But tightening up on the other side of the ball should be top priority with the Hornets conceding over 10 points a game more than the top three teams, worse than two of the bottom-four outfits.
Speedster Nick Evans has posted eight tries, while playmaker Sean Scott is enjoying a stellar season – he leads the Massetti Cup with 114 points from nine tries and 39 goals.
The Hornets’ Round 12 showdown with the fifth-placed Eagles will be pivotal.
REMAINING GAMES: Knights (H), Eagles (H), Keas (H), Panthers (A)
ARANUI EAGLES (5th, 6 points)
It’s been a season of near misses for the Eagles, but two wins in their last four games – after losing five of their first six – has kept their finals flame flickering.
Returning to their spiritual home Wainoni Park and with a new coach on board in Eddie Timo-Latu, the Eastside club are warming to the task and have defeated Riccarton and Celebration in the past month.
But if they do miss out on the top four, the Eagles will rue a couple of tight losses – 20-18 to Hornby in Round 6 and 27-26 to Papanui in Round 9.
Their tough run home includes a match-up with the Bulldogs at home this weekend and a road trip to take on the Panthers in the penultimate round, while next week’s clash with the Hornets at Halswell Domain is a do-or-die affair in respect to their playoff hopes.
REMAINING GAMES: Bulldogs (H), Hornets (A), Panthers (A), Knights (H)
PAPANUI TIGERS (6th, 6 points)
Under a new coach in former Rockcote Canterbury Bulls mentor Darrell Coad and experiencing a massive playing roster overhaul in the off-season, the Tigers have performed admirably to still be in the finals mix.
The new-look squad appeared to hit its straps in June, edging Aranui 27-26 in Round 9 before going down by six-point margins to top-four teams Halswell and Hornby in the past fortnight.
In the latter clash, Papanui trailed 28-0 before producing a remarkable fight-back that ultimately fell just short.
Wins over Celebration and Riccarton (both of who they defeated in the first round) would give them a strong chance of snatching fourth spot, but a horror draw in the last two rounds – away to Northern and Linwood – will likely see them needing other results to fall their way as well.
REMAINING GAMES: Lions (A), Kngihts (H), Bulldogs (A), Keas (A)
CELEBRATION LIONS (7th, 5 points)
The Lions’ top-four prospects (and that of the Eagles and Tigers) could be looking a lot healthier if they weren’t held to a 28-all draw by the fourth-placed Hornets last week.
The Steve Fenika-coached side has just two wins to their name and hasn’t banked two points since Round 6, but they can take heart from their ability to put in for 80 minutes – their 50-22 loss away to Hornby in Round 5 is their only genuine blowout defeat in 2018.
Spirited efforts home and away against the dominant Keas, in particular, would have give Celebration confidence.
With three of their last four games at their Cuthberts Green base anything is possible, but with three games to make up on the Hornets it looks like the Lions will be playing for the Gore Cup in August.
REMAINING GAMES: Tigers (H), Panthers (H), Knights (A), Bulldogs (H)
RICCARTON KNIGHTS: (8th, 2 points)
It’s been a tough old season for the Knights, who started brightly with a 46-36 win over the Hornets in Round 1 but have now lost nine games on the trot.
Sam Brown’s boys face a mountainous task over the last four rounds just to offload the wooden spoon – but there is no prouder club in the competition than Riccarton.
Meanwhile, it should be noted that they are the only club to have played each of the top three teams twice so far. The Knights have by far the most palatable remaining draw, squaring off against the teams placed fourth to seventh.
So is a finals spot even mathematically possible? It’s not as crazy as it sounds. They would need to win all four of their games and for the Hornets to lose all four of theirs, but aside from that they’d merely need the Keas, Panthers and Bulldogs to keep beating up on the bottom-half teams.
But first of all, they’d have to reverse a trend that has seen them concede 128 points in the past four rounds and score just 20.
REMAINING GAMES: Hornets (A), Tigers (A), Lions (H), Eagles (A)