The brevity of the Lower Mid North Coast Rugby Union's pandemic-strangled competition is hammered home with every passing round of the 10-round minor premiership, but the fascination continues to grow with less than two months before the Kennards Hire semi-finals kick off.
Three clubs are vieing for the men's prized minor premiership, all level on 12 points on the eve of tomorrow's fourth round, the Manning River Ratz, the Wauchope Thunder and the Wallamba Bulls.
Wauchope are in their third winter of the Lower MNC competition and although unbeaten this season, their courage and will-to-win in upsetting the Bulls was a stirring spectacle.
Club president, Paddy Bowen, was at pains to downplay the claims of the Thunder, suggesting that they were a combination "thrown together" with ex-rugby league players and "retired" Wauchope rugby players boosting their numbers.
But one standout he mentioned was one of his smallest - open-side flanker Oliver Pascoe, a "little bull-pit terrier" of a forward.
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Likewise, the player most responsible for the downfall of the Wallamba Bulls was Wauchope's midfield general, Stephen Blair, who assembled his back line into a smooth-functioning, cohesive group and then made the intercept for the game-winning try.
Although the Bulls were beaten, I believe they are the team who warrant favouritism, marginally ahead of the Manning River Ratz, who have lost their captain and No 8 stalwart, Sam Hartnett, for the season with a knee injury without requiring major surgery.
Wallamba are developing one of the most formidable back row combinations in NSW Country rugby, led by the Welsh open-side flanker Tom Homer and sturdy No 8, Ash Rushby, with the powerful Islander duo of Tongan 'Hau' Honema'u, and Fijian Atu Katonitabua coming off the bench.
In addition, coach Peter White has an outstanding young breakaway revelling in the gruelling trade in Luke Martin.
In a clash of the competition favourites, Wallamba are at home at Aub Ferris Field, Nabiac, to the Ratz tomorrow while the Old Bar Clams are seeking their first win of the competition against the Barbarian Hogs at Richard Crook Field, Old Bar.
Wauchope travel to Gloucester in the ranges tomorrow, "always tough opponents - we're expecting a battle," as club president Bowen put it. It remains to be seen whether the Cockies field the strong side anticipated with players reportedly having been recruited from Singleton and surrounding clubs.
Gloucester and the Wallamba Bulls' women's 10-a-side teams lead their competition with two wins and 10 points from as many games with Wauchope a close third on nine points.
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Round Four: Saturday, 1/08/2020, Wauchope Thunder v Gloucester Cockies, Wallamba Bulls v Manning River Ratz, Old Bar Clams v Barbarian Hogs at Richard Crook Field, Nabiac.
Semi-final play-offs: 19/09/2020, Elimination semi-final, 3 v 4, and Major semi-final, 1 v 2.
Preliminary finals: 26/09/2020. Major semi-final Loser v Winner of elimination semi-final.
GRAND FINAL: 3/10/2020, Winner of Major semi-final versus winner of Preliminary Final.
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