Key games at both ends of the Lotto NRFL Men’s Championship table

By Jonno Ross

Tauranga City could be the dark horse in the Lotto NRFL Men’s Championship title race as they stalk leaders East Coast Bays and Ngaruawahia United.

Barry Gardiner’s Tauranga side have two games in hand on their two rivals, having fallen behind in their league schedule due to a Chatham Cup run that was finally ended by Eastern Suburbs.

Tauranga travel to in-form Ngaruawahia United on Saturday, and a win would lift them clearly into title contention.

Tauranga City coach Barry Gardiner … his side are poised to join the title race if they can get a result at Ngaruawahia. Photo: David Joseph / Phototek.

It’s an important game for both clubs, while East Coast Bays should have a routine win at home to midtable Fencibles United.

Game of the week

Onehunga Mangere United host Waiheke United on Saturday, in a high-stakes game.

With only one win in the 24 matches played by these teams this season, this fixture may well determine who is destined to finish bottom of this year’s league table.

Onehunga Mangere have only themselves to blame for their predicament.

In at least four of their games this season, they have thrown away a draw by conceding in the 80th minute or later to give up those precious one-pointers.

Had the Mountain Men ground out those four points, they would be out of the relegation zone, and ahead of Metro by one point, who are in 10th spot.

Onehunga’s survival chances are achievable, and they’ll know this game is a huge opportunity to get points on the board.

Though Onehunga have only won one game this season, at least they know they have a great performance in their locker, having beaten league leaders East Coast Bays 1-0.

A few more results like that, and Onehunga should be safe to play in the Championship for another season, but time is ticking – needs must now!

Waiheke United’s Alejo Villasana (left) tries to stem a Tauranga City attack earlier this season. Photo: Jackie Tran Van / Phototek.

Waiheke United are in big trouble. With 12 games played, 0 wins to their name, and just 3 points to show for their efforts, they’ve really fallen from great heights, having been competing in the Northern League just last season.

A stat that the Islanders will not like — they haven’t won a game since August 13, 2022, 16 games ago, and that has been their only win in 34 league games.

Confidence in the camp will be low, but they can draw on their memories of a 1-1 deadlock in round one against Onehunga.

It’s do or die, particularly for Waiheke.

Ngaruawahia United’s Stjepan Kovacic (right) has been finding the net with ease. Photo: Andrew Skinner / Phototek.

Player to watch

Ngaruawahia United’s Stjepan Kovacic (29) has quickly found his scoring touch since arriving from Croatian club NK Torpedo Kusevac in March.

He was the two-goal hero of Ngaruawahia’s statement win against leaders East Coast Bays last weekend.

Kovacic has plundered 15 goals in eight league and cup outings, scoring in all eight games.

He’ll be doing well to extend his scoring streak to nine games when the Green Machine host third-placed Tauranga City.

Bold prediction

I predict North Shore United will surprise promotion hopefuls Hibiscus Coast with a 2-1 win.

Coast have the speed wobbles since their great start to the season, and they haven’t won since beating Ngaruawahia United on April 29.

Last time out, I predicted Mount Albert Ponsonby would break their seven-game drought without a win and beat North Shore United 3-1. The final score was 3-2 to MAP


Games to be played on Saturday July 1, 2023

Metro v Ellerslie
Phyllis Street Reserve, Auckland, 3pm

Ngaruawahia United v Tauranga City
Centennial Park, Ngaruawahia, 3pm

Mount Albert Ponsonby v Northern Rovers
Anderson Park, Auckland, 3pm

North Shore United v Hibiscus Coast
Allen Hill Stadium, Auckland, 3pm

East Coast Bays v Fencibles United
Bay City Park, Auckland, 3pm

Onehunga Mangere United v Waiheke United
Mangere Domain, Auckland, 3pm

Jonno Ross

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.

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