Tough trips to the country for Cup semifinals
Celtic and Harlequins look set to win their Hamersley Cup senior rugby semifinals this weekend but both will have to beat higher-ranked opponents to do so.
The town teams will travel to country fortresses but take plenty of momentum with them. Celtic head to Fairlie to take on table-topping Mackenzie while Harlequins head south to Waimate.
Players overcoming injuries however appear to be topping the coaches' concerns, except for Mackenzie who know they will be without a trio of key performers.
At Strathconan Park, things won't be quite as desperate as Manchester Park, where one of teams will be finishing their season.
Upfront Harlequins will have an edge but it will be whether they can get their best backline on the paddock. A fully fit Harlequins outfit would make the going tough for Waimate.
They have some great ball runners and size in the pack and speed out wide.
Utility back Paula Fifita has been a stand-out with centre Hau Kaumatule also impressing but seeing little action with injuries in the second round. Both are doubtful starters which could hurt Harlequins' chances.
Explosive loose forward Sam Vea is likely to start at second-five as his usual No 8 spot has been filled by Teki Veikune, who has been impressive of late.
Waimate also have two aces up their sleeves in astute coach Barry Matthews, who is able to squeeze the best out of his team on the big occasions, and a very reliable goal kicker in halfback Theo Davidson.
Manchester Park is also likely to be full of hometown support.
Harlequins coach Colin Cameron will want to get his best players all on the field.
If university student Jordan Hooke gets a clearance he will play inside Scott Norton, who is just back from injury but a key man in the Harlequins backline.
Cameron said discipline will also be key for Harlequins.
"I think Theo kicked seven out of seven against us last time, so we can't afford to give away penalties."
Waimate defence was also hard to crack, he said.
Matthews too is sweating on the fitness of lock Jamie Engelbrecht and fullback Steve Macaulay, but five-eight Kurt Rooney was likely to be fit.
Harlequins had threats all over the park, so it would be tough, Matthews said.
"There are no second chances."
He will, however, no doubt have a plan to counter the big pack.
Waimate are not without their own game breakers.
Midfielder Jared Matthews can bust any defence while Macaulay has shown some real class since arriving from Ireland.
In the pack loose forwards Mosese Aho and Loni Toumohuni can be handful if on song,
The Rams are rightfully top of the table having only lost two games this season but it's hard to bet against Celtic, who are chasing their sixth title in a row.
Celtic's backline has functioned much better in the second round and the return of halfback Sekope Maea is a timely boost.
Mackenzie's backline has been very good but it will be hard to overcome the loss of George Folau and Will Hand, who ran into each other on Saturday, Hand suffered a broken collar bone and Folau's cheek bone was damaged.
A lot of responsibility will fall on their midfield general Fa'aitu Tuamoheloa to ensure their rejigged backline fires.
If Mackenzie can get parity up front the game should be a ripper and Strathconan Park is likely to be packed, following on from some of the bumper crowds already seen this season.
Mackenzie coach Justin Geary said they hoped to speed the game up and move Celtic's big boys around.
"Both our previous games have been tight affairs and I don't think that will change."
Mackenzie have shown the ability to hang in and have won several of their close encounters in the final 10 minutes.
Celtic coach Nigel Walsh said it would be a tough tussle against a well balanced Mackenzie side.
"It will be a great challenge and you have to respect them as they finished top of the table."
Walsh said the key for his side to get up was good execution and patience.
Celtic's strengths this year have been their front row, led by the experienced Matt Fetu and hard running loose forwards including Kali Latu and Tim Penitani.
Walsh has also nurtured some young backs, after losing six from last season's championship winning team, and the backline are starting to show some form especially the maturing Jamie Gallagher at fullback.
- The Timaru Herald