Things have been brighter this week for Spotswood United co-coach Brendan Crowley, although they could still be a lot better.
Crowley had to take his side around the coast last weekend without a dozen players he could have selected.
Although the team did not get flogged, losing 32-12 to Coastal, Crowley has seen their top-four prospects suddenly go from strong to precarious.
At least this week, as they prepare to host Clifton, he has several frontline players back, including Taranaki wing Seta Tamanivalu, although his inclusion could depend on what time he arrives from Fiji where he has been visiting a sick relative.
Lose to Clifton today, and they will have only one chance, against Tukapa next week, to break into the top four and make a rare semifinal appearance.
The scenario appears cruel for Crowley and co-coach Brent Perrett because when anywhere near full strength, Spotswood United look genuine title contenders.
Crowley was not making any excuses yesterday, saying the players he had available had trained well during the week and were excited about the prospect of facing a side who were also in a must-win situation.
"We've worked on a bit of clarity around some parts of our game," he said after identifying the ruck and maul as key areas.
"It's a big part of the game and we felt some guys did not really know their roles."
Although they have had to chop and change their personnel, Spotswood United have the second-to-best defensive record in the competition, having only leaked an average of 16 points per game.
That says a lot to the work the coaches have put in, and they have usually been able to field a number of players each week capable of breaking open opposition defences.
Although Dave Philander is still away on international duty with Namibia, Taranaki wing Waisake Naholo and Tamaniavlu could cause Clifton plenty of headaches. The home side also possess some grunt up front, even after the loss of regular captain Matt Goodin and exciting No 8 Iopu Iopu.
Crowley has plenty of respect for Clifton, whom he described as their toughest opposition in round one.
"They are going to be bloody hard," he said. "The first 50 minutes we played Clifton was probably our best 50 minutes of the season but for me, they are a very dangerous side."
Experienced Clifton coach Ian Snook has sprung a surprise in his selection, naming Taranaki prop Sione Lea at No 8. His reasoning was to make the best use of the forwards available to him.
Lea's selection meant captain Chris Black moves to the side of the scrum, while Snook will have a bit of ammunition off the bench with the likes of Latu Sisifa and Lemeki Sukanabula to call on, and regular wing Matiu Welch could also have an impact from the reserves.
Although 2014 has been a mixed bag for last year's beaten finalists, Snook felt they were still capable of having a say in the title race if they could string a good performance together today.
"I think the last two weeks we have been able to put some pretty good rugby together," he said. "I think we have taken a fair while to piece it altogether this year and I feel like it's been getting a little bit better each week."
Elsewhere, New Plymouth Old Boys have the chance to take a massive step towards hosting a semifinal when they host arch-rivals Tukapa.
Old Boys have won five of their last six games and could have too much attacking power across the field for Tukapa, although few gave the visitors much chance of winning in round one when they pulled off a remarkable 36-33 victory.
Tukapa coach Laurence Corlett will give veteran first five-eighth Jack Cameron until this morning to prove he is over a wrist injury which has kept him sidelined for the past three weeks.
Adding to Corlett's problems are the loss of hooker Kris Moller, who broke an arm during last week's late loss to Inglewood.
Coastal should also put themselves into a great position to host a semifinal when they welcome Stratford to Opunake.
A bonus-point win would put them in a two-way battle with Inglewood for that honour heading into the last round-robin match. Coastal are better placed, having recorded more wins.
Inglewood had everything to play for when they travelled to Hawera last night to face Southern. In contrast their opposition must be at the point where they just want the season to end.
HOW THEY LINE UP
SPOTSWOOD UTD vs CLIFTON
2.45pm today, Yarrow Stadium
Referee: Max O'Leary
SPOTSWOOD UNITED: Waisake Naholo, Dion Beer, Nick Standen, Robert McLeod, Seta Tamanivalu, Josh Hamilton, Warwick Lahmert (captain), Pauliasi Hanfiro, Tristian Lahmert, Micaiah Torrance-Read, Richard Sutton, Blake Irving, Jarred Profitt, Matt Tupa, Mitchell Graham. Reserves, Daniel Cox or Matt Foreman, Riki Harrison, Ethan Perrett, Jared Nell, Daamon Williams, Corey Telfer, Jade Morgan.
CLIFTON: Beaudein Waaka, Andrew Tonks, Josh Kendall, Adam White, Jordan Mellars-Rose, Brad Cooper, Bevan Quigley, Sione Lea, Mark Shaw, Chris Black (captain), Dan Dreaver, Dane Kendall, Ryan Cocker, Abe Haira, Zane Neill. Reserves, John Luxton, Lemeki Sukanabula, Latu Sisifa, Shay Fairhurst, Brandon Pokere, Matiu Welch, Tony Stewart
- Taranaki Daily News
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