Round 16 is almost upon us and a few interesting results from the previous week’s games have certainly thrown the cat amongst the pigeons in the race for finals. With only 3 full rounds remaining, there are still 4 clubs locked in a close battle for the 3rd and 4th ladder positions – Sawtell, Orara, Boambee and Maclean. Storm are mathematically out of contention as wins in their remaining 3 fixtures would still leave them 2 points adrift of Orara’s current tally of 27, while Tigers would need to win all 4 games, hope that all the teams above them pick up virtually no points and overturn a 13 goal net deficit to 4th place Orara – in other words, Sportsbet would have them paying about $1001 at this point.
A rough week for the Tigers has seen them slide out of finals contention after a 4-1 home reverse against Urunga in last Wednesday’s catch up, a 9-1 thumping against the imperious Maclean Bobcats after having two players sent from the field, and a hard fought 4-2 loss to Coffs United in Tuesday’s Leo Baumgartner Cup. This weekend’s fixture against Grafton United should see them try to stop the rot and get the morale back up again with a dominant performance at home on the immaculately manicured lawns of Polwarth Drive, but the standings would suggest it’s mostly academic at this stage.
Though Tigers should take heart from the emergence of a few promising youngsters including Jye Buck and Innocent David, a combination of disciplinary issues – with a cumulative total of 5 players sent off in two games against Orara and Maclean forcing them not only to play out the remainder of those matches undermanned, but to come into their fixtures against Northern Storm and Coffs United with thin squads and go down on both occasions – and a congested schedule at the back end of the season will no doubt have disappointed a fired up Jason Snell, desperate to prove a point against the Lions who he felt had been given a soft cup run and were garnering undue praise.
Coffs United though had other ideas, and went a long way towards sealing the Premiership in their favour with both that result and a commanding 7-0 victory over Westlawn Tigers on Saturday. The Lions have been excellent throughout this season and are definitely living up to their billing as competition favourites. Glen Williams’ men combine a well drilled defensive structure that allows them to soak up periods of pressure from opposition attacks without the scoreboard operators being troubled, alongside a potent and clinical attack who take their chances and bang in timely goals with metronomic consistency.
With Scott Goddard and Nick Mallett operating effectively in the Lions’ midfield engine room and the pace of Caleb Lokpo regularly being unleashed to devastating effect out wide, Coffs are always dangerous in transition and it is this efficiency that has contributed to the undoing of many an overmatched side this season. With 3 of their 4 remaining fixtures coming against fellow top 4 clubs, they won’t have an easy run home and the potential is definitely there for an upset or two, but they will go into each of these encounters as justifiable favourites and it will take something special to derail their charge this year.
One club who will be less pleased with how the week has gone is Urunga Raiders. After a fairly routine 4-1 victory over Tigers in a midweek encounter last week that was initially supposed to go down way back in early April, an undermanned Raiders side were ambushed at Toormina Oval on Saturday night, going down 2-1 to an electric Scorpions outfit after spurning a number of chances late on. It is a result they will undoubtedly be rueing as it has essentially extinguished their Premiership chances – even a win against the Lions on Sunday afternoon at the Patch will leave them 2 points adrift and needing Coffs to drop further points in the last couple of rounds. With any luck the Raiders should at least be able to call upon a stronger squad this week – having gone into the Sawtell game with the bulk of their regular starters out for a cornucopia of reasons – and they will need to in order to be competitive with the competition’s most well drilled XI.
Sawtell will be pleased with how the week went, claiming one of the season’s more notable scalps against the Raiders. That result will certainly give the young Scorpions a massive lift coming into a gruelling last 3 rounds against Orara, Northern Storm and Coffs United, where they will need results in all three to secure a finals spot over the chasing pack. With Orara one point behind and looking right over their shoulder, and the Bombers and Bobcats potentially climbing to 2 and 3 points behind respectively with wins in their games in hand, every game from here on is a final for the Scorpions as things are going to come right down to the wire. This puts massive importance on their Saturday afternoon battle at Dairyville with a determined and resurgent Dingoes side. But Rod Purkiss’ boys will be a tough out for anyone from this point onwards as they have turned a run of 3 losses around in fine style over the past couple of weeks. Personnel changes in recent weeks have necessitated a change in the Scorpions’ attacking structure, but it certainly appears to be doing the trick as they put 7 past Westlawn the previous week, and anyone who is able to get 2 through against an ordinarily near-impenetrable Raiders defence is doing well.
Their dance partners on the weekend, the Dingoes, will also be delighted with how last weekend turned out. Squeaking home 1-0 against the often underrated Northern Storm, the result has put Orara one step closer to a first finals appearance in a number of years. Like Sawtell, they will have to run a gauntlet of finals contenders to get home, with games against Coffs and Maclean following this weekend’s crunch encounter. There will be no margin for error for Joel Finlayson’s troops, and they will have the added motivation of wanting to reverse a 3-0 loss to the Scorpions last time the sides met. It’s sure to be an intense contest and will be well worth the quick trip up Mount Browne Road, but spectators may need to rug up for a frigid winter afternoon in the hinterland.
Boambee Bombers will be happy to have gotten through the trip to Rushforth Park with no injuries or suspensions as they go into battle against Storm this weekend. A 14-0 scoreline would seem a fairly routine win for the Bombers but rare goals to goalkeeper Jake Stitt – who had his first penalty saved but had a chance to make amends from the spot in the second half – midfielder Josh Barden and central defender Joe Willman – who couldn’t get enough after slotting one of the game’s 3 penalties and popped up late on to add an open play strike for good measure – gave the travelling contingent some added entertainment and got a few more players out of running starkers at season’s end.
The time for shenanigans will be over this weekend as Ayrshire Park plays host to another of the round’s crucial fixtures. The last time Boambee and Storm met, the Bombers put 8 past them at the Cove, but a much improved Storm side will surely provide a sterner test and Shane Duncan’s men will need to be at their best to keep their march towards finals alive. By the time the season wraps up, Boambee may well be qualified zookeepers as they will need to handle groups of Tigers 3 weeks in a row – two fixtures against Westlawn and one against Coffs Coast – with wins in all of their remaining games likely putting them in the box seat to overhaul Orara and Sawtell who are just above them.
But another club will be doing their best to play spoiler to the Bombers’ finals aspirations too – the Maclean Bobcats. A string of impressive results in recent weeks culminated in a 9-1 destruction of Coffs Coast Tigers on the weekend, the sheer margin of victory no doubt sending shockwaves through the gaggle of fellow finals contenders. Though indubitably aided by the sending off of two Tigers players, the Bobcats will still take a huge amount of confidence from that result and will be targeting one of the great late season runs in recent years, needing wins over Westlawn, Coffs Coast Tigers (again), Urunga and Orara to stay in the hunt.
It’s not impossible by any stretch, but the Urunga game in particular will be a colossal task and Maclean will still be reliant on the teams above them dropping enough points to leave the door ajar. Night games at Barnier Park are where Westlawn Tigers always turn up and do their very best to frustrate opponents, so the Bobcats will do well not to get complacent on Saturday and will have to summon the vigour with which they approached last week’s triumph in order to ensure the flame of their finals hopes doesn’t burn out.
Though Northern Storm’s finals hopes were virtually over before last Saturday’s tussle with Orara at the Cove, coach Scott Donaldson will be less than impressed to be on the wrong side of the ledger in yet another close game. With 2-1 and 3-1 losses to Maclean, 1-0 and 3-2 losses to Orara, a 3-2 loss to Coffs Tigers and a 2-0 loss to Sawtell, it has been a season of near misses for Storm, who have always been there or thereabouts and with a couple more timely goals might have been being spoken about as contenders at the business end of the season. But though success has eluded them this season, there is still pride and experience to play for in three tough games against Boambee, Sawtell and Coffs Coast Tigers to close things out, and they shouldn’t be short on motivation.
The only time this season they suffered a blowout was against this weekend’s opponents, the Bombers, back in May at the Cove when they shipped 8 in a disappointing outing, so they will be eager to avoid a repeat of that situation on Sunday afternoon. Knowing they could derail the home side’s hopes with a result is likely to give them some added incentive as well – when your finals chances have come to a premature demise, there’s little better than being a serial banana peel for the contenders and picking up a few morale boosting upsets, so the Bombers would do well not to take lightly a Storm side with nothing to lose.
Westlawn and Grafton each suffered heavy defeats on the weekend and things won’t get any easier this round. The Tigers will take on the in-form Maclean Bobcats under lights in Junction Hill and will need to draw upon every fibre of determination they can muster to keep what has been a rampant attack in recent weeks at bay. The last time the two northern clubs met saw a 3-0 result in Maclean’s favour, and it would be difficult to imagine Westlawn having any less of a battle on their hands in the return leg.
Grafton’s assignment is just as tough, with a trip to West Coffs to take on a wounded Coffs Tigers side awaiting them – after last week’s capitulation at the hands of the Bobcats, the Tigers will be out to rack up a big score tomorrow afternoon and make amends, and to briefly switch sports and borrow from Imran Khan’s now famous aphorism about cornered tigers being at their most dangerous, Grafton will have their hands well and truly full to try and prevent this from holding true. They will take heart in their first senior win for the season though, a late 3-2 smash and grab operation by the reserves last week against Boambee coming back from 1-0 and then 2-1 down and absorbing shots that would have been nearing triple figures – it is that sort of persistence, guts and heart that they will need to display if they are to drag Coffs Coast into a dogfight this weekend.