For the third straight season the Rockcote Canterbury Bulls head into a last-round clash with Akarana Falcons knowing their spot in the NZRL National Premiership could well depend on a complicated for-and-against situation.

But unlike 2016-17 – when the Rockcote Bulls narrowly missed out on the decider despite brave performances against the eventual champs – Andrew Auimatagi’s in-form side have put themselves in the box-seat.

The Rockcote Bulls are unbeaten at the top of the Premiership table after edging out Counties-Manukau Stingrays 20-18 at Mount Smart Stadium and swamping Waikato 52-6 at Rugby League Park. The Falcons could have confirmed themselves and the Bulls as the 2018 finalists with a round still remaining, but they crashed to a 36-22 loss to the Stingrays to leave the door to an all-Auckland decider ajar.

For the Rockcote Bulls, who have a healthy +48 for-and-against, the Round 3 equation is simple: win and they’re in. But a loss to the Falcons (+26) by less than 12 points would also ensure they head north for the final.

After their virtual sudden-death victory in Round 2, Counties now shape as likely finalists. The Stingrays, currently with a +12 points differential, will be guaranteed of a place in the decider – regardless of the Bulls-Falcons result – with a win by more than 24 points over battling Waikato, who lost their first two games by margins of 42 and 48.

If Canterbury wins, Counties will join them in the final with a win by any margin. But if the Falcons win and the Stingrays have a harder time in Hamilton than expected, calculators and abacuses will be at the ready to decipher the for-and-against puzzle.

It’s a familiar position for the Rockcote Bulls.

In 2016 they stormed to an outstanding 38-26 win over the Falcons in Christchurch in the last round – after trailing by 12 at halftime – but it wasn’t quite enough for a place in the final, having headed into the match knowing they needed a victory by 19-plus.

The scenario was even more convoluted last year, with Akarana unbeaten, Canterbury and Counties boasting one win apiece and Waikato winless heading into Round 3. The Rockcote Bulls held a narrow points differential advantage over Counties and Waikato, but a plucky 32-20 loss to the Falcons in Auckland and Waikato’s upset of Counties consigned the red-and-blacks to a second straight year of missing the final on percentages.

On their form so far, Auimatagi will be backing his charges to make a bird of it by downing the Falcons and going into the final against (most likely) the Stingrays full of confidence. But he’ll also be drumming into the team how important an 80-minute performance is up against an opponent with the strike and experience Akarana possess.

Both of Canterbury’s impressive wins were unmistakably patchy.

After charging out to a lead against the Stingrays, the Rockcote Bulls failed to cash in on a mountain of attacking opportunities during the second half and eventually fell behind, before Ben Ilalio’s try against the run of play and James Baxendale’s cool conversion inside the final 10 minutes secured the two-point success.

Canterbury led Waikato 16-0 in even time last Saturday, but were only able to add one more try by the hour mark as simple errors thwarted their momentum time and again. Their blistering last 20 minutes, in which they ran in six unanswered tries, is the type of football the Rockcote Bulls will attempt to replicate against the Falcons – for extended periods.

Auimatagi had the luxury of only having to make one change to his line-up from Round 1, with Matt Sauni coming in for Dene Grace (family bereavement) at centre for the Waikato game.

Grace returns this week, which pushes Matt Sauni into the second-row, where he will partner brother Paul. Young Riccarton back-rower Jope Tagicakibau moves back to the bench after starting the first two games, while Roger Tafua drops off the interchange.

In the only enforced change, Will Yeow (travelling to Australia) has been replaced on the wing by Linwood teammate – and Rockcote Bulls debutant – Thoren Fidow-Kele.



Rockcote Canterbury Bulls: Tauvale Tauvale, Thoren Fidow-Kele, Will Tafua, Dene Grace, Ben Ilalio, Toi Sepuloni, Brad Campbell, Rulon Nutira, Alani Kakoi, Alex Todd, Matt Sauni, Paul Sauni, James Baxendale (c). Interchange: Cyrus Timo-Latu, Isaac Maliota, Reuben Te Amo, Jope Tagicakibau. Coach: Andrew Auimatagi.

Photo Credit: Kevin Clarke – CMG Sports

Photo Credit: Kevin Clarke - CMG Sports
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