Avatiu Nikao Eels have again claimed the Cook Islands Rugby League Association minor premiership title, placing them in the driving seat to retain the main title which will be decided later this month.
The Albert Nicholas-coached side defeated Arorangi Bears 24-18 in their final match of the preliminary round at The Swamp on Saturday to finish on top of the points table with 17 points.
The match, which was played under heavy conditions, saw Eels run away with a 16-4 lead at the end of the opening spell.
The home side was good with the ball in hand and kept pushing the Bears back into their territory to put on a dominant performance in the opening half.
Bears picked up momentum in the dying stages of the opening spell and scored a try to keep their chances of winning the match alive.
They returned stronger in the second half, putting pressure on the Eels to claw their way back into the match.
In a scintillating second half which was marred with handling errors because of the slippery conditions, Eels maintained their ground to sneak away with the 24-18 win.
The win makes the Eels, the defending champions of the domestic league competition, firm favourites to win the main title.
But coach Nicholas said they would not take anything for granted as they expect a tougher battle in the playoffs.
“We have achieved one goal, we now have another hurdle to overcome. We still have the playoffs left before the final so we will not take anything for granted yet.
“There is still a lot of work to do and we will get straight into work to ensure we fix the areas that needs improvement before the playoffs.”
Nicholas thanked the players, club officials and supporters for sticking with the team this season.
“It wasn’t an easy season for us. We had our ups and downs but I thank the players, the club management and the supporters for their support.
“We have worked really hard, not only the players but also the coaching team and the management who worked on the strategies on how to tackle our opponents on the field.
“I think the ultimate goal is to win the final and this minor premiership win is a major boost in the lead-up to the finals.”
Nicholas also thanked the Bears for giving them a tough match and apologised to the junior teams for cancellation of their matches.
The junior matches scheduled on Saturday at The Swamp were cancelled to ensure the field was in playable condition for the main premier match.
Meanwhile Tupapa Panthers thumped Aitutaki Sharks 42-14 while Takuvaine Warriors drew with Titikaveka Bulldogs 18-all in other premier matches.
Panthers finished ahead of Bulldogs on second spot on points difference after both managed 15 points each, while Bears are likely to finish on fourth spot on eight points with the Cook Islands Rugby League yet to make a decision on a pending protest.