THE Lower North Coast Rugby Union minor premiership could be decided tomorrow when front running Wauchope tackle Manning Ratz at Taree Rugby Park.
"The winner will take a big step to finishing minor premier,'' Ratz coach Jake Maurirere predicted.
Thunder (22) currently leads the Ratz by a point. Both sides have four wins and a draw, however, Thunder has an extra bonus point. Wallamba on 17 are the only other team in with a chance of claiming the top position. The minor premier will get home ground advantage for the major semi-final.
Tomorrow's game will be the first of the second round. The Ratz and Thunder played at 19-19 draw at Wauchope in the opening match of the season.
Manning will welcome back prop Paul De Szell, winger Clint Walker and utility player Jake Hazard tomorrow. All missed the romp against Old Bar Clams last week.
Walker has alternated between fullback and wing this season, however, Maurirere said Matt Bridge's form at fullback has been irresistible.
"Matt's keen to claim the number 15 jumper as his own,'' Maurirere said.
Thunder, like the Ratz, have a number of rugby league players in their squad from either Macleay Mustangs or Port City Breakers. So like the Ratz they can struggle in the finer points of the game. However, Maurirere said players from the rugby union side, the Kempsey Cannonballs have also bolstered Thunder.
"And the players from the Cannonballs are mainly forwards,'' he explained.
And it's in the forward exchanges, particularly in the ruck area, where the Ratz have been caned in penalties this year.
Maurirere concedes this is a concern. He added that the Ratz will also look to keep the ball away from Thunder's match winning fullback Stephen Blair, who has been in sensational form.
"We'll need to limit his options in attack,'' Maurirere said.
The women's 10s game could also have plenty of bearing on semi-final placings. Manning Ratz, fresh from strong wins over Wallamba and Old Bar, sit on 12 points with Gloucester. Wallamba lead the way on 15 with Wauchope on 14.
These four sides will fight out the playoffs.
Ratz coach Dave Rees said the clash against Thunder, the defending premiers, will give the Ratz a real indication as to how they are travelling. Manning played some attractive football against Old Bar but will face a sterner defensive line tomorrow.
In other games this weekend Gloucester hosts Barbarian Hogs while Wallamba travels to Old Bar. Gloucester has the bye in the women's 10s.
Blair is Beale-like
By Phil Wilkins
WAUCHOPE Thunder's coach makes no apology for the comparison, but Travis Moore sees similarities in his splendid utility back Stephen Blair and the Waratah and test rugby union back, Kurtley Beale.
The subject of the Thunder's generous praise will receive his acid test at Taree Rugby Park tomorrow when the two unbeaten clubs of the Lower Mid North Coast rugby union competition, the Manning River Ratz and the Thunder, meet in a game which could determine the minor premiership of the Kennards Hire competition.
Blair's speed and creativity will be matched against the skills of the Ratz' captain and play-maker, Ricky Campbell.
"He's a natural footballer, rugby league or rugby union," coach Moore said of Blair, a league player from the Macleay Mustangs. "He's a natural. Just give him the ball and let him run.
"He's been a good player for a while, a footy player by nature. He reminds me of Kurtley Beale."
The rugby union code is fortunate to have recruited Blair, who swung over to the Thunder's ranks when his league club decided against playing in this pandemic-afflicted year.
The Thunder and Ratz met early this season and played out a thrilling 19-19 draw. Since then both clubs have won their four remaining games.
"I think our chances are good against the Ratz," Moore said, "provided we keep 15 players on the field. We have lost three players to yellow card offences in two games recently."
In separate games, Blair played a match-winning role at inside-centre against Old Bar and then played equally well at fullback in last Saturday's game against the Barbarian Hogs in Wauchope in which the Thunder jumped to a 26-0 lead, dozed off, allowed the Hogs to score three converted tries and almost lost the game.
In this greatly abridged season, every minor premiership game win is precious with either first or second semi-final position providing a dual opportunity to capture the shield.
Thunder lead the minor premiership with 22 points, one bonus point ahead of the Ratz, with the Wallamba third on 17 points, the Barbarian Hogs on eight points, Gloucester Cockies on seven points and Old Bar Beach Clams without a point.