By Jonno Ross
Tight defences seem to be the key to climbing this year’s Lotto NRFL Men’s Championship table.
The competition’s only two unbeaten sides, East Coast Bays and Hibiscus Coast, have conceded only five goals between them after six rounds. And they’ve each claimed four clean sheets.
Bays are candidates for another clean sheet this weekend when they head to North Shore United, who have struggled for goals so far.
And Coast will be properly tested when they host Waikato hopefuls Ngaruawahia United.
Game of the week
Hibiscus Coast and Ngaruawahia United have been the surprise packages of this year’s Championship.
Both were promoted from the Lotto NRFL Division 2 last year. Only their own fans would have predicted they’d be among the form teams of this year’s competition as it heads into Round 7.
Hibiscus Coast have had a near-perfect start to be competition, winning five of their opening six games.
Their only dropped points were from a 1-1 draw with North Shore United.
They left it late last week against Waiheke United, scoring in the 82nd minute to secure a 1-0 victory thanks to Jack Brown’s second goal of the season.
This sent the newcomers into second spot in the league, with a four-point buffer over third-placed Mount Albert Ponsonby.
Ngaruawahia United’s only defeat of the season came against league leaders East Coast Bays, in the opening game, when they suffered a 3-1 loss.
Since then, with the experienced Mario Bilen in midfield, they have gone five games without defeat, building to their best result of the season so far, last week’s 5-2 demolition of Mount Albert Ponsonby.
The Waikato-based club’s confidence will be high, but they face tough opposition this week, and most likely difficult weather conditions at the often-windy Stanmore Bay Park.
Players to watch
Here are a couple of players to emerge as matchwinners for their teams.
Reuben Henderson from Ngaruawahia United and Tom Durkin from Ellerslie.
Reuben Henderson has scored four goals for Ngaruawahia United and while he can easily build up a bit of emotional steam, his finishing is nothing less than clinical. No wonder supporters call him ‘The King’.
Ellerslie’s Tom Durkin has been a revelation this season.
He leads the competition’s goalscoring table with five goals, already exceeding his four-goal tally from last year.
Bizarrely, he scored a hat-trick against Northern Rovers last weekend, only to be on the losing end of a 4-3 result.
He’ll get more opportunities this weekend to show his new-found nose for goals when the Ponies head to winless Onehunga Mangere United.
After six games on the road, Mount Albert Ponsonby play their first home game against Fencibles United.
Mount Albert have an impressive home record, undefeated in the league at Anderson Park since July 24, 2021.
I expect the run to continue with a 3-2 victory.
Last week I predicted a 3-0 win to Ellerslie against Northern Rovers. I got the ‘3’ part correct for Ellerslie … Rovers won 4-3.
Games to be played on Saturday April 29, 2023
Tauranga City v Waiheke United
Links Ave, Mt Maunganui, 3pm
North Shore United v East Coast Bays
Allen Hill Stadium, Devonport, 3pm
Northern Rovers v Metro
McFetridge Park, Glenfield, 3pm
Onehunga Mangere United v Ellerslie
Mangere Domain, Mangere, 3pm
Mt Albert Ponsonby v Fencibles United
Anderson Park, Mt Albert, 3pm
Hibiscus Coast v Ngaruawahia United
Stanmore Bay Park, Stanmore Bay, 3pm
Friends of Football writer Jonno Ross is a media writer for the NZ Football Foundation. A former New Zealand U-20 goalkeeper, he is the team manager for Mount Albert Ponsonby. He supports the All Whites, the Football Ferns, the Wellington Phoenix and Arsenal.