Saturday’s top-of- the-table club league clash between the Tupapa Panthers and Titikaveka Bulldogs seemed like the dummy run for the season’s grand finale.
The match between the competition leaders drew a huge crowd to Victoria Park. They were treated to what was easily one of the top games of the season.
While the Bulldogs were able to hold off an impressive Panthers charge to win 14-10 and maintain a top spot on the premier grade points table, the Panthers would have walked away confident in the lessons learned.
The Bulldogs’ determined win also sent a strong message of their intention to carve their names on the championship trophy this season.
Bone-crunching tackles that shook the grounds and desperate try-saving efforts were features of the match, which was played in high intensity from start to end.
Kitted out in their slick new gear, the Bulldogs were a formidable force and piling on the pressure paid off with an early penalty awarded and converted by the visitors to Victoria Park.
With the early lead and confidence the Bulldogs added more points with a well-worked team effort try to be in the lead 6-0.
Injuries plagued both sides, with new faces taking the field for both sides.
Replacing Panthers danger man Eddie Marama, speedy winger John Marsters proved his worth with a number of tricky runaways that kept his team in the game.
Spot-on defence by the ever-impressive Teina Savage also had the Bulldogs working overtime to get across the line.
In typical controlled Panthers style, the hosts put on another classy display of skills to lock up the scores 6-all at the half time break, setting the scene for a powerful display of league skills in the second half.
Despite an aggressive start to the second half, errors let the Panthers down, with the Bulldogs making the most of their misfortunes and turning them into points.
Bulldogs winger Sai Nagi made an impact on his return to the game after being absent all season due to injury.
The leggy speedster looked at ease as he carved up the sideline to score off a Panthers error to edge his team ahead 10-6.
Not to be outdone, the Panthers strung together a strong set and following yet another break by John Marsters, the ball quickly moved out wide to Teina Savage who crashed his away across the line to put fans on the edge of their seats.
A missed conversion kept the scores tied at 10-all before ill-discipline saw the game official sin bin a Bulldogs player and red card a Panthers star, banning him from play for the remaining 20 minutes of the game.
Desperate intercept attempts and bone crushing tackles ensued in what was a scrappy final 20 minutes of play, with ball possession see-sawing before Bulldogs winger Longo Leouta took control of the ball to dot down and seal the win for the Bulldogs.
The side will be super-confident heading down the road to the playoffs, while the Panthers showed they still have more to give in these vital times of the season.
In other premier grade matches at the weekend, the Sea Eagles held off a determined Aitutaki Sharks side to win 36-28, while the Warriors were unable to contain the Eels despite leading the game early, with the Eels taking back control to win 28-6.
Postponed games before the Easter weekend will be played out this Tuesday afternoon, with the draw and venue for the catch-up games to be printed in tomorrow’s CINews.