The championship end of the 2012 Wellington club rugby season is fast approaching and with both the Hardham and Jubilee Cups set to get ever more exiting over the final month of round-robin play.
Four of the eight Jubilee Cup contenders are grouped together on the points table behind frontrunners Oriental-Rongotai and are ready to strike, while in the Hardham Cup there's a four-way battle developing for two semi-finals positions behind runaway joint leaders Poneke and Old Boys University.
For several teams across both competitions, this weekend's fourth round looms as a crunch one for their semi-final chances. One such clash in the Jubilee Cup will be at the Petone Recreation Ground between 22-time champions and winless Petone and current Jubilee Cup title holders and so far unbeaten Ories.
This is a match that Petone realistically must win if they are to stay in touch, while a fourth straight victory for Ories would virtually guarantee them a playoff berth. They'd probably have to drop their last three games to miss out from that point.
Petone scraped into the Jubilee Cup round ahead of Old Boys University on a superior points differential and are coming off a heavy loss at home to Wainuiomata following a big defeat to Tawa and then a 23-23 draw with HOBM.
Even if they win they are up against it. Recent Jubilee Cup history clearly shows their probable fate if are emerge this Saturday with a record of one win from four matches:
Of all 36 Jubilee Cup semi-finalists in the past nine seasons between 2003-2011, just two of them have made the playoffs after winning just one of their opening four Jubilee Cup round-robin games.
These two teams were Poneke in 2005, who lost three of their four opening Jubilee Cup games, and Petone in 2010, who won their first match but lost their next three before winning thee in a row and qualifying fourth.
Ories are ominously shifting into top gear. After winning eight from 11 and finishing fourth in the first round Swindale Shield, Ories have had Jubilee Cup wins over Wainuiomata (11-6), Upper Hutt (45-3) and Hutt Old Boys Marist (44-13). With several players in their ranks hitting their straps and with the cotton wool probably coming off both their recent U20 players Matt Proctor and Ambrose Curtis and the possible inclusion of Hurricanes Motu Matu'u and Mark Reddish and the Savea brothers, Ories could be hard to stop.
In the first round, Ories won 21-6 in their Jim Brown Memorial match at the Polo Ground. They also won both their clashes last year.
The pressure also falls on first round winners Hutt Old Boys Marist and Upper Hutt this weekend or they will also be out of semi-final contention.This would then leave five sides chasing four playoff spots over the final three weeks.
To stay in the race, HOBM must beat Norths at Porirua Park and Upper Hutt will need to overcome Wainuiomata at William Jones Park.
Since winning the first round title a month ago, the Eagles have had their wings clipped, losing to MSP and Ories and held to a draw by Petone. After trailing just 6-8 early in the second half against Ories last week they fell away and lost 13-44, so will want to turn their fortunes around fast.
They face a Norths side hit hard early by Tawa last week, losing 13-20, and who will be equally desperate to win to stay amongst the leaders and give themselves every opportunity of continuing their pattern of winning the Jubilee Cup every second year since winning their first in 2004.
In the first round HOBM's only loss in 11 matches was 13-35 to Norths at the Hutt Rec, so the Eagles will be hoping to reverse this result when they step on to Porirua Park.
Upper Hutt will need to find a way past a Wainuiomata side that was rampant and full of confidence in their 30-point slaying of Petone last week and who would be on their way towards clinching what would be their maiden semi-finals berth if they swept past Upper Hutt too.
This is Wainuiomata's third match in four at home at William Jones Park and their last there until the final round against Norths. In a heavy ground cut up by winter they have so far lost there to Ories 6-11 and beaten Tawa 10-5. Upper Hutt drew with Norths in their Jubilee Cup opener but then lost to Ories 3-45 and then MSP 0-38. In the first round Upper Hutt edged out Wainuiomata 25-23, Wellington Lions fullback Jason Woodward winning the game with a sideline conversion on fulltime.
In the fourth Jubilee Cup match of the round, MSP welcome Tawa on to Evans Bay Park in an expected tight tussle between the home side and Tawa. MSP pipped Tawa 20-17 in the first round at Lyndhurst Park, and the teams are now level in second equal behind Ories.
Tawa defeated Norths in round three, went close to beating Wainui the week before and accounted for Petone 37-3 in the opening week of the second round. MSP have also won two from three and are coming off a convincing win, overrunning Upper Hutt 38-0 away at Maidstone Park last week. This followed an emphatic win over HOBM at home in the first round followed by a disappointing away loss to Norths in round two.
In the Hardham Cup, with Poneke and OBU both on the maximum 15 points from their opening three games, the spotlight once more falls to the Wests Roosters, Rimutaka and Johnsonville. These three clubs are effectively battling it out for the remaining two spots and for promotion-relegation in the Swindale Shield in 2013.
Of this trio, the Wests Roosters face a red hot Poneke side at the Ian Galloway Park and will have their work cut out to come away with the points.
Poneke have so far swept to wins over Wainuiomata B (45-0), Johnsonville (46-0) and Norths (52-8) but should find the going tougher against Wests who are their first Premier opposition of the second round. The mercurial Roosters lost to OBU 29-0, beat Wainui B 34-0 and edged out Rimutaka 13-10. A win for them over Poneke would put them right into contention, but defeat could spell big trouble for them.
If Wests lose to Poneke they will be leapfrogged by either Johnsonville or MSP B who meet in the early game at Evans Bay Park in another crucial Hardham Cup match. Johnsonville, who will be without a couple of their key players due to injury, will be anxious for points against MSP B. Their last three games after this are against current Premier clubs Rimutaka, Wests and OBU.
In the first round Swindale Shield, Poneke beat Wests 28-16 at Kilbirnie Park and in the first round Senior 1 Harper Lock Shield MSP edged out Johnsonville 22-18 at Helston Park.
In the other two round 4 Hardham Cup matches on Saturday, OBU will be eying up a fourth consecutive bonus point win that would put them through to the semi-finals against Norths B at Porirua Park at 1.15pm and Rimutaka will be desperate to overcome Wainui B at William Jones Park at 1.15pm in a match that could go a long way to deciding their fate for 2013.
In other grades this weekend, unbeaten Petone and Poneke can get a jump on the field if they win their fourth consecutive matches in the Senior 1 Ed Chaney Cup. Defending champions Petone play lower ranked Ories at the Petone Rec at 1.15pm and Poneke meets Wellington at Hataitai Park at 3.00pm. Poneke have so far had three tight wins in the second round while the Axemen lost their first match of the season last week to Upper Hutt.
Upper Hutt play an Avalon side who lost 16-19 to Petone last week at Fraser Park at 3.00pm, while Paremata-Plimmerton and Hutt Old Boys Marist meet at Ngatitoa Park at 3.00pm and OBU and Tawa play at Martin Luckie Park at 1.00pm in the other two Senior 1 games..
HOBM are the only unbeaten team after three rounds of the HD Morgan Memorial second round Senior 2 competition. They can make it four from four if they defeat mid-table Norths at Porirua Park at 1.15pm.
HOBM head a group of four teams all with two wins from three. Of these four, MSP and Stokes Valley clash in town at 1.15pm, while second placed OBU plays lower table Avalon at Fraser Park at 1.15pm and third placed Petone plays mid table Ories at home at 1.15pm. In the other Senior 2 match of the round, Wests and Poneke are searching for their first wins when they clash at Ian Galloway Park at 1.15pm.
In the Victoria Trophy Premier Women's competition, leaders Norths will be hoping to regain their top form when they meet winless Stokes Valley at Delaney Park at 1.15pm. Second placed Wainuiomata and fourth placed Eketahuna play over the hill at 11.30am and improvers Ories are out to beat third placed OBU at Martin Luckie Park. All Premier Women's matches are at 11.30am.
The Premier 1 First XV competition takes a break for a fortnight due to the school holidays. Leading players have been in Feilding this week at the annual Hurricanes U18 camp.