Counties Manukau Stingrays have ended the Canterbury Bulls' unbeaten season and set up a desperate scramble for grand final spots in the 2014 Pirtek NZRL National Premiership.
The home side, who have finished runners-up to Akarana Falcons for the past two years, were too good for the visiting South Islanders at Papakura's Massey Park, emerging 36-22 winners.
And the result gives them the inside running for another crack at the title. Stingrays, Bulls and Falcons have now lost once each this season, with Akarana due to play winless Northern Swords tomorrow.
If they all win out over their lower-ranked opponents in the final round, the top two placings will come down to a points-difference countback, where Counties Manukau enjoy an overwhelming advantage.
The Stingrays were never headed in their contest against the Bulls, scoring first through a try from wing Tomas Aoake, converted by William Stowers.
The rivals went try for try through the opening 40 minutes, with Stowers slicing through the Canterbury defence and presenting Dion Snell with a try on halftime for a 16-10 advantage.
Soon after the restart, centre Zebastian Luisi gave Counties a double-digit buffer and although the Bulls closed to 20-16 with a converted try to Izic Placid, that was as close as they would get.
Three tries in succession, including back-to-back efforts from Albert Vete, put the result beyond question. Fullback George Edwards burst 50 metres to set up Vete's first, then Eko Malu slipped him a clever inside pass from dummy half for his second, before Edwards crossed to seal the deal.
Assuming results go to form from here in, Stingrays only need a win over Wellington Orcas next week to progress to the final and Canterbury would need a huge win over the Swords to stand any shot at the other vacancy.
But perhaps this season has one more twist left before the dust settles.
Stingrays’ warrior connection
George Edwards - Vodafone Junior Warriors
Semisi Tyrell - Vodafone Junior Warriors
Tomas Aoake - Vodafone Junior Warriors
Jethro Friend - Former Vodafone Junior Warriors
Sione Feao - Former Vodafone Junior Warriors
Eko Malu - Former Vodafone Junior Warriors
Albert Vete – Vodafone Warriors
Paul Tuli - Vodafone Junior Warriors
Lafu Feagaiga - Vodafone Junior Warriors
PIRTEK NZRL NATIONAL PREMIERSHIP
Saturday, September 27
Massey Park, Papakura
Counties Manukau Stingrays 36 (Albert Vete 2, George Edwards, Raymond Taimale, Zebastian Luisi, Tomas Aoake & Dion Snell tries; William Stowers 4 goals) Canterbury Bulls 22 (Erwin Sauni, Izic Placid, Manu Weepu & Chris Bamford tries; Toa Sepuloni 3 goals); HT: 16-10
Stingrays: 1-George Edwards, 2-Raymond Taimale, 3-Zebastian Luisi, 4- Semisi Tyrell, 5-Tomas Aoake, 6-Carlos Hotene, 7-William Stowers, 8-Pakisonasi Afu, 9-Jethro Friend, 10-Uila Aliolupo, 11-Sione Feao, 12-Dion Snell, 13-Eko Malu, 14-Albert Vete, 15-Terence Phillips, 16-Paul Tuli, 17-Lafu Feagaiga
Bulls: 1-Erwin Sauni, 2-Will-Tafua, 3-Bruce Havea, 4-Jack Mundy, 5-Cyrus Timo-Latu, 6-Toi Sepuloni, 7-Izic Placid, 8-Jaye Pukepuke, 9-Manu Weepu, 10-Chris Bamford, 11-James Baxendale, 12-Corey Lawrie, 13-Agaese Fiso, 14-Alani Kakoi, 15-Dan Moevao, 16-Paradise Mann, 17-Paul Sauni
Referee - Shane Rehm Touch - Nathan Barker Pringle & Kiko Puhipi Hibbs