The opening round of the Taranaki premier competition proved something many had thought before the first ball was kicked, it's going to be a tight run for the top four.
Stratford are the exception, and they have a fair way to go as evidenced by their 37-6 home loss to New Plymouth Old Boys, but the remaining seven teams look pretty even.
Some might slip away, of course, but the three other fixtures on Saturday could all have had different results than the ones posted after 80 minutes.
The margin of victory probably flattered Clifton as they headed defending champions Southern 23-10 at the Camp Reserve in Waitara, Coastal blew a 17-0 lead to lose 24-17 to Spotswood United at Yarrow Stadium, while Inglewood needed an excellent late solo try from Cody Hall to sneak past Tukapa 25-21 at the TET Stadium.
The J D Hickman feature match between Clifton and Southern was noteworthy for a few reasons.
If you didn't have sunscreen at the ground you were in trouble, especially when the temperature topped 28 degrees Celsius, the Clifton club's committee did a fantastic job (again) organising a carnival day at the ground, which was enjoyed by around 1800, and the rugby was as uncompromising as when the two sides met in last year's grand final.
The heat, and the state of the playing surface, probably contributed to a few too many mistakes, as did the fact that it was week one, but there was not too much between the two sides.
A blistering 10-minute spell after halftime from Clifton got them home as they scored three tries to one in the end.
There were a lot of penalties early, 10 in the first half hour, but things did settle down as both sides became better at the breakdown.
Southern would be disappointed they conceded a try to Te Waiti Mareikura right on halftime, otherwise they would have taken a 7-3 lead into the break.
Both sides generally took the right option, only to be let down by their execution at times.
If there was a telling difference between the two it probably came out wide where Clifton looked more dangerous, while Southern lacked a bit in their back three.
It was a good battle between the two first five-eighths, with Southern No 10 Daniel Brooks shading new Taranaki recruit Marty McKenzie, if only because the latter did put his side under pressure at times.
Overall, though, it was a good introduction by the New Zealand sevens rep who had to adjust back to the 15-a-side game after a diet of sevens lately.
Of the other players on show, Clifton second five-eighth Josh Kendall did some excellent things, while Southern lock Jon Smyth did everything expected and a bit more.
Southern could have actually had the last 15 minutes really tense if they had not had a try disallowed after lock Andrew Retallick got himself into an awkward position and blocked a defender as a team-mate crashed over.
"It's the first game of the season, so you can't ask for much more than a win," Clifton captain Chris Black said.
"It was pretty tough, Southern are a good side and we just had to guts it out, really. The boys showed a bit of ticker at the end and there was a chance we could have scored a couple more tries."
Black was pleased with his side's defence, especially the attitude of his players in an area they had put some focus on.
"It's been our biggest goal coming into 2014. Last year we scored a lot of tries but leaked a lot as well, so we really want to get that D-line sorted. We've got a good enough attack and if we get it sorted then we should be able to win more games than we lose."
He also felt the winning of the match was how they came out after the break.
"We really just wanted to focus and go really hard at them and I think that was the turning point."
Southern coach Jason Skipper, who has taken over from Willie Rickards, was far from despondent at the final score.
"We started really well, got ourselves into good positions but our execution let us down a bit," he said.
He put his side's flat period after the break down to fatigue.
"There's no lack of motivation and you have to give Clifton some credit, they lifted the ante and put us under pressure."
Elsewhere, Old Boys scored seven tries to none in Stratford and could have scored more according to coach Tony Earl.
He was pleased with the effort and attitude of his players but disappointed they could only land one of the seven conversion attempts.
Earl said halfback David Ormrod had a strong game, as did openside flanker Lachlan Boshier, especially over the ball at the breakdown.
Hall's late heroics gave Clifton the start they were looking for in the competition.
With time nearly up, Hall collected a wicked bounce from a Tukapa kick and set off on a 60m run before stepping a defender, fending off another and beating the cover defence.
Inglewood co-coach Ngatai Walker was rapt with the performance of Telly Hemopo, who shifted into halfback in the second half. Hemopo's sniping runs were a big factor in the win, he said.No 8 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis was also prominent in the maroon colours.
Tukapa assistant coach Laurence Corlett was delighted with how his side fronted without a few frontline players who were injured.
He singled out flanker Adrian Wyrill, hooker Conan Houkamau and first five-eighth Jack Cameron for their performances.
Spotswood United had to dig themselves out of a hole after falling 17-0 behind to Coastal.
They finally took the lead after an hour's play and never relinquished it.
Co-coach Brent Perret thought the Lahmert brothers, halfback Warwick and openside flanker Tristian, were their best performers.
Coastal assistant coach Trent Olliver said the two tries Spotswood United scored in a five-minute period in the second half led to their downfall. He was pleased with the performance of wing Troy Stevenson and veteran halfback Brett Goodin.
- Taranaki Daily News
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