Clifton face the crunch at home vs Inglewood
They might be facing a must-win scenario squarely in the eyes, but Clifton remain buoyant ahead of a visit from Inglewood this afternoon.
While the season has probably not met the expectations of most Clifton supporters, with their side sitting on a 50 per cent win record, their home form has remained strong.
They have lost just once with their supporters on the home sidelines - a 31-19 defeat to Spotswood United on May 10.
That has veteran Clifton coach Ian Snook hopeful his side can produce their best form at Tikorangi and keep their top-four hopes alive.
"It will depend on other results but it's looking like we'll need to win at least three out of four, and maybe even four out of four," he said.
Clifton were dealt a blow during the week with news that their best forward this year, lock Matt White, had secured work in Chile and had left the country.
"You just have to deal with the cards you are dealt with," Snook said in relation to White's sudden departure.
He conceded his side had not played with the same level of confidence as last year, but he was firm that it could be turned around with a good performance today.
That will start up front, where Clifton's tight five need to set a decent platform against an Inglewood side that will keep coming at them for 80 minutes.
Simply, men such as rep props Ryan Cocker and Sione Lea, as well as experienced hooker Abe Haira, need to lead the way to allow Clifton's backs to get on the front foot.
White's departure, coupled with the loss of first five-eighth Marty McKenzie, will make their job tough.
"We've still got a good team and the boys are really keen to get up for this and show they can do it," Snook said.
If Clifton can keep in touch with the top four, then they will have the services of Nemia Soqeta in the last week of round robin after he finally comes off contract with his French club.
It does seem a big "if"' to get to that point, but not impossible.
Inglewood co-coach Ngatai Walker was rightly optimistic about his side's chances, given their consistent form in 2014.
They have lost just twice and recorded the equal highest number of wins - seven - out of the eight-team competition after 10 matches.
Although they were behind to Stratford at halftime last week, Inglewood showed their character to come away with a 33-10 victory.
Inglewood have also been bolstered by the return of co-captain Berny Hall, who has missed most of the season with concussion. That has now cleared, with Walker saying his openside flanker had been cleared by a specialist in Auckland this week.
Although they might lack the X-factor of some other sides, Inglewood's fighting spirit has been evident nearly every time they have stepped on to the field and Walker is expecting the same against Clifton.
"We try and pride ourselves on working hard and everyone pitching in," he said. "We have some really key ball runners who have played really well this year, but we still need everyone to get in and do their job."
One player who has fit that bill has been prop Lopi Lilomaiava, who has been punishing with ball in hand while still managing his core roles.
"He's been really outstanding, and I think he is a future rep player," Walker said. "There is no other athlete or front rower like him in Taranaki because he is a ball runner and is 130-odd kilograms."
Clifton's ability to stop him and others such as Mitchell Brown and Timo Tutavaha behind the advantage line could decide the match.
Elsewhere, the match between Coastal and leaders Tukapa has the potential to have a significant impact on the final outcome of the top four.
Tukapa have been riding high in recent weeks as Coastal's star has been on the wane.
However, Coastal can produce a lot better form, especially at home where they have also proved hard to beat with their vocal support.
The return of several key men has made a difference for Tukapa, who will probably look to punch holes in the midfield and use their excellent loose forwards to get some good continuity.
New Plymouth Old Boys should savour the trip to Hawera to face Southern, who put in their worst shift of the season against Spotswood United last week.
With nothing to play for but pride, Southern can throw caution to the wind and have a go, something that might play into Old Boys' hands, given how much they like to use the ball.
Things could get ugly for Stratford at Yarrow Stadium, where they face an in-form Spotswood United.
HOW THEY LINE UP
CLIFTON vs INGLEWOOD 2
.45pm today, Tikorangi
Referee: Will Johnston
CLIFTON: Beaudein Waaka, Matiu Welch, Josh Kendall, Andrew Tonks, Jordan Mellars-Rose, Brad Cooper, Chris Black (captain), Mark Shaw, Lemeki Sukanabula, Dan Dreaver, Dane Kendall, Ryan Cocker, Abe Haira, Zane Neill. Reserves, Sione Lea, Jono Talau, John Luxton, Cranleigh Petersen, Eugene Mattock, Adam White, Tony Stewart
INGLEWOOD: Telly Hemopo, Jason Dombroski, Avon Lewis, Cole Brown, Jerem Wichman, Cody Hall, Chris Bayens, Mitch Brown, Berny Hall (co-captain), Mark Neilson, Brendon Lyons, Cam Gall, Lopi Lilomaiava, Mac Ritchie, Timo Tutavaha (co-captain). Reserves, Mark Hale, Luke Bunn, Ryan Hucker, Maifea Maifea, Rohan Gladding, Hayden Keeling
Taranaki Daily News