The premier competition just might be a bit closer than anticipated.
There are two wonderful semifinals to look forward to at the University Oval tomorrow. Harbour and Dunedin meet in the earlier game while University and Kaikorai will contest the second semifinal.
A couple of weeks ago, you would have said University was a shoo-in to progress through to the final.
The students had not been beaten since round two and appeared to be marching inexorably towards a second consecutive title.
But injuries and the absence of classy first five-eighth Fletcher Smith have helped bring the students back to the pack.
In the final round-robin game last week, Kaikorai upset the defending champion 22-10.
While University had nothing riding on the outcome, Kaikorai needed to win to make the playoffs and it showed.
The team produced a wonderful defensive effort to shut down University’s potent backline.
Still, it was a shock result given University won the earlier encounter 62-17.
Those sceptics among us could be forgiven for thinking University preferred to play Kaikorai than face Southern and its big pack on a potentially cut-up surface in the late semifinal.
University coach Rahul Das was happy to disavow the cynics of that notion.‘
“The Speight’s Shield was up for grabs, we were on the 13-game winning streak and we wanted to finish the round robin with a win,” Das said.
“We always want to put our best foot forward but we’ve had a few injuries over the last few weeks. Some people might have thought we were playing games but we’ve been selecting the people that have been available.”
On that note, University will welcome back pacy winger Gavin Stark but towering lock Josh Dickson is still struggling with a knee injury and is unlikely to front.
Kaikorai is undefeated in its past seven games and certainly has the class to upset University for a second week in a row.
Fullback Tony Ensor is an ever-present threat. Jayden Spence is instrumental in the midfield, and loosies Paul Grant and Lee Allan are dangerous ball runners.
The other match promises to be just as tight. Dunedin has beaten Harbour twice during the round-robin stage but both games were close.
It won 36-34 in round one and 15-12 in round nine. Harbour hit a rough patch late in the season but bullied Taieri 45-15 last week and appears to be back in great form.
Dunedin has a big pack and matches up well against Harbour.
But it has not had a tough game during the past three weeks and has produced the odd flaky effort this season – the 43-20 loss to Green Island springs to mind.