The top four has all but taken shape in Taranaki senior A club rugby after a weekend that saw Southern's chances of making their first semifinal appearance almost disappear.
A controversial decision not to award veteran Southern prop Jason Hooper a try in the corner was a major talking point out of their must-win match against Inglewood in Hawera, which ended with the visitors taking the spoils 23-13.
Hooper looked to have made the line as Inglewood desperately clung on to an 18-13 lead late in the game but linesman Danny Dalleston was not convinced, and after a consultation with referee Darryl Heibner, no try was given.
To add salt into the wound, Southern lost the ball from the resulting scrum, lost territory and coughed up a last-second try to Berny Hall to miss out on even taking a bonus point.
Southern's only chance of making the playoffs now rests on them beating Spotswood United and Eltham-Kaponga and relies on Inglewood slipping up against Clifton and Coastal in the final two rounds.
It looked for all money that Southern would get up and beat Inglewood at halftime in the Cast Iron Services feature match.
Turning with a strong wind at their backs and trailing by just 13-10, Southern just could not break down Inglewood's dogged defence.
Numerous times Southern went within a whisker of scoring, only to be denied by their own lack of finishing and that last gasp defence.
It was a brutal encounter at times as both sides realised the importance of the match.
In the end, Inglewood's determination, combined with Southern's high error rate, proved the difference.
There were also some exceptional performances from the victors.
First five-eighth Chris Brown was influential from the outset and produced a good running game to match his accurate efforts with the boot, while young No8 Mitch Brown got through a power of work.
There were some great touches from hooker Timo Tutavaha, whose work rate was also exceptional, while lock Germaine Anaha gave another top 80 minutes.
"We've been working hard on our defence and it's coming through for us this end of the season," Inglewood coach Bernard O'Sullivan said.
The first-year head coach admitted to being slightly nervous at the break with his side only three points ahead turning into the wind.
"We talked about the penalty count at halftime and I think we gave away a few less in the second half, but I can't thank our boys enough for their defence," he said.
Elsewhere, Coastal moved up to second with a crucial 21-15 win over New Plymouth Old Boys at Rahotu.
Rick McKenna put behind him a disappointing performance seven days earlier, when Coastal were beaten 34-10 by Tukapa, to score all of his side's points through two tries, a conversion and three penalties.
Having lost regular halfback John Julian to concussion during the week, Coastal coach Joe Lawn took a gamble and moved McKenna in a place from first five-eighth with great effect.
"It was good to get things back on track," Lawn said.
"It was a tough week with the realisation that we were two games away from possibly missing out on the semifinals if we lost. Now we've got that monkey off our back we can focus on trying to get a home semifinal."
As well as McKenna, No8 Kelvin Weir had a top all-round game that was highlighted by some stoic defence near Coastal's line.
Old Boys co-coach Tony Earl said his side made too many mistakes.
As well as missing a number of tackles, Old Boys dropped a number of crucial passes and turned over ball in wrong areas of the field.
Earl thought his best players were No8 Jono Crossan and second five-eighth Ross Allan.
Stratford finally had something to celebrate when they picked up their first win of the season with a 22-14 victory over Spotswood United at Stratford.
The win was set up in the first half when Stratford took a 16-0 lead into the break, despite playing into the wind.
Former All Blacks lock Jason Eaton's appearance for Stratford gave the side a real boost, coach Chris Drummond said.
As well as Eaton, Drummond thought his loose forward trio – Ricky Pepper, Todd Curtis and Jarred Coster – played well, while second five-eighth Cody Hall continued his good form.
Spotswood United coach Kevin Walden lamented his side's lack of accuracy throughout the match.
His son, Teihorangi Walden, played well at centre while Taranaki prop Willie Ioane got through 80 minutes in his return from injury.
Defending champions Tukapa moved to the top of the table after Eltham-Kaponga defaulted their scheduled match while Clifton had the bye.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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