Fitness has proved key for Albion Excelsior
Albion Excelsior coach Jason Webb is keeping his feet on the ground as his unbeaten team enters the business end of a competition it has dominated right from the outset.
The spectacular turnaround of the Gore team that won just four of its 14 games last season has been the competition highlight and a graphic illustration of what can be achieved by foresight and off-season training.
The club has earned praise for taking the bull by the horns in recruiting players and starting training as early as October in the off-season. It stole a march on many rivals in the 14-strong competition.
Webb has been around rugby too long to project a confident image. Instead he has taken one game at a time and has not lost focus.
"We are treating all other teams with the same amount of respect. I don't think the change to wetter footing will bother us greatly," he said.
"We are ticking along OK, but you never know what happens. A few injuries are about the only setback or problem we have struck at this point."
Loose forward Shannon Black and prop Wallace Heteraka have been sidelined and a couple of backs have been troubled by knee problems that can never be lightly dismissed.
Albion Excelsior will travel to Wrights Bush in eighth round action on Saturday to blow away any cobwebs of a fortnight without play.
All rugby roads will lead to Excelsior's Gore Showgrounds base for the much awaited clash the following Saturday with Tokanui, a clear second on the points table.
Excelsior will then meet Blues and Collegiate in the run down to the playoffs late next month.
Blues faces the litmus test against Tokanui at Balmoral Drive on Saturday.
Form analysts suspect Blues will have to step their game up a notch as it prepares to meet the odd tougher rival in the competition draw.
The clash of the second and third-equal teams on paper looks the game of the day with the Ohai-Nightcaps (third equal) and Midlands (seventh) encounter also engaging interest.
Assistant Midlands coach Vinnie Cruickshank knows that his team, a beaten semifinalist last season, must rally immediately to stay in contention.
With 19 points, the Winton team is in seventh position behind third-equal Ohai-Nightcaps, Blues and Riverton (26) and Collegiate (22).
"If we can get our full and best team together, we can improve enough in the next two weeks to still make the playoffs."
All coaches are aware that a week, more so a fortnight in this case, can be a long time in rugby and positions can be reshuffled at the drop of a hat.
Much will come down to furthering fitness levels and countering injuries with sufficient numbers backup.
Some competition controversy has emerged by the odd team capitalising on the bye of its premier stablemates and bolstering their teams by using some of those better players.
It is to be hoped that the ploy does not impact too much on the integrity and fairness of the competition as teams jostle for position in the playoffs race.
The Southland Times