Pirates-Old Boys coach Matt Saunders believes the standard of premier club rugby this season has taken a big step forward as his team scraps for a playoff spot.
Pirates-Old Boys claimed a 27-19 victory in an all-important showdown with the Eastern-Northern Barbarians at Surrey Park on Saturday.
Star, Marist and Woodlands look likely semifinalists at the midway point in the season, while Blues and Midlands' hopes are close to being dashed.
If that formula is correct, it leaves Pirates-Old Boys and the Barbarians scrapping for one spot.
Saunders said the tight nature of the competition, on top of a lift in standard of play, made for a good 2014 season to date.
''The standard from this year to last year is definitely up, there is no doubt about it. There is so much more depth around in most teams, some are still a bit short but the standard in general is just a lot better,'' Saunders said.
His team's victory on Saturday came on the back of two tries from talented young first five-eighth Jay Thompson, who will step closer to a Stags jersey if he continues to make the right moves on and off the field.
Pirates-Old Boys raced out to a 17-3 lead in the first half and looked well on top before some stern words from Barbarians coach Brenton Taylor at halftime sparked a surge in the visiting team, to the point that his team quickly got to a 19-17 lead.
But that spark faded after 20 minutes as Pirates-Old Boys regained the upper hand and finished best, winning 27-19.
Taylor was obviously frustrated after the game, saying that, at times, attitude let his team down but he was not panicking in terms of how the loss may affect their playoff hopes.
''At the end of the day, if you can string [together] two or three wins in a row, you're back in it aren't you? It's no good winning yesterday and losing next week. There is still a bit of rugby to be played, there are still going to be other results go different ways and we are only four points off fourth place.''
For Pirates-Old Boys, wing Jack Sharland was a standout while, for the Barbarians, experienced fullback Mark Wells was the visiting team's best.
Midlands might be sitting at the bottom of the premier table but Saturday's thrilling but frustrating 32-31 loss to table-topping Star highlights they are a team very much on the improve.
Coach Paul Henderson acknowledged it was frustrating to lose the tight game but hailed what he described as a ''great game of rugby''.
''It was an excellent game of footy. It was a really good game of rugby and I think everyone was really pleased with that.
''We have moments where we sort of go missing a little bit and that is a work-on for us. Star in the later part of the first half, I think scored three tries.''
Midlands started the best to lead Star 8-0 and got out to a 13-5 lead before Star score 17 unanswered points.
In the second half, the two teams traded points and at fulltime Star narrowly held onto a 32-31 win to maintain their unbeaten record.
The Stewart twins were a standout for Midlands, with hooker Sam turning in a man-of-the-match performance and No 8 Jordan scoring a hat-trick of tries.
A 22-point haul from first five-eighth Scott Eade has led Marist to a 22-6 win over Blues in Southland's premier club rugby game played at the Les George Oval on Saturday.
The two teams traded penalties early in the game and the scores were locked up at 6-6 before Marist pulled away, thanks mainly to Eade's boot.
All up, he kicked five penalties and converted the try he scored, the only five-pointer of the game.
It has been a positive start for Marist, who in recent seasons have looked capable but have failed to get the wins.
Through the first round of the 2014 competition they have won five of their six games and, with the cut-off mark for a semifinals spot expected to be about seven or eight wins, the Miller St boys are in a strong position.
In the crossover match, premier team Woodlands beat Te Anau in Te Anau 55-7.
Pirates-Old Boys 27 (Jay Thompson 2, Rocky Pettigrew tries; Oscar Jenkins 2, Craig Smith con; Jenkins, Smith pen),
Eastern-Northern Barbarians 19 (Mark Wells, Greg Saunders tries; Neil Warnock 3 pen).
Star 32 (Lolohea Loco 2, Junior Ngaluafe, Jeremy Bekhuis, Mac Popham tries; Hayden Pope 2 con, pen),
Midlands 31 (Jordan Stewart 3, Damien Pulley tries; Blake Fairburn con, 3 pen).
Marist 22 (Scott Eade try; Eade con, 5 pen),
Blues 6 (Connor Bissett 2 pen).
- The Southland Times