The Panthers defeated Aitutaki Sharks 48-24 to finish on top of the domestic rugby league points table ahead of the playoffs, which start this weekend.
From their 12 matches played, the Darren Piri-coached side managed nine wins, two draws and a loss to amass 20 points.
Avatiu Nikao Eels with nine wins, two losses and a draw finished on second place with 19 points, followed by Titikaveka Bulldogs and Ngatangiia Matavera Sea Eagles in third and fourth places respectively.
In the other premier clashes over the weekend, Bulldogs defeated the Sea Eagles, while Arorangi Bears, who finished in fifth place overall, overcame the bottom-placed TKV Warriors.
Despite finishing on top, Panthers will still face a tough battle in their bid to make it through to the grand final.
The side will take on the Eels this Friday at BCI Stadium, and the winner of that match will advance to the final. The loser will get a second shot at the final when it will play the winner of the Bulldogs versus Sea Eagles match to be played this Saturday.
Coach Darren Piri said the aim was to finish in the top two to ensure the team had a good opportunity to make it through to the final.
He said that ideally they would love to “get the job done” this Friday, but he is wary of the Eels, who will be gunning to make amends after a disappointing end to the preliminary rounds earlier this month.
“It has been a good season for us, and to finish on top is a good achievement, but it (finishing on top) doesn’t matter much in the playoffs,” Piri said.
“For us, it’s good to finish in the top two so we have a good opportunity to make the final.
“We have some niggling injuries in the team with a player sustaining broken fingers and ideally we would like to win this Friday so we get two weeks to recover and prepare for the final.”
Piri said the level of competition was much higher in the playoffs, adding that they would be focussing on the basics to ensure they execute their game plan well against the Eels in the match this Friday.
Friday: Tupapa Panthers v Avatiu Nikao Eels. Saturday: 11am Junior development; 1.30pm Premier Reserves, Team 3 versus Team 4; 3pm Premier Reserves, Team 1 versus Team 2; 4.30pm Premiers, Titikaveka Bulldogs v Ngatangiia Matavera Sea Eagles. No game for U19s as the overall top of the table points leader will go straight to the finals with the two remaining teams playing off in the semifinals on Saturday, May 26.