By Jack Sharp
Title rivals Waikato Unicol and Cambridge need to avoid slip-ups this weekend as they move towards their showdown game in late August.
Unicol head to third-placed Taupo, who on their day are capable of upsetting the Lotto NRFL Southern Conference leaders.
Nearest rivals Cambridge travel to Waipa rivals Te Awamutu for a derby which will pump up the local passions, and close the gap in playing ability between the sides.
Having shaken off Taupo as the third contender for the title, the top two teams have similar fixture run-ins, with both playing Te Awamutu and Papamoa.
Chances are the title will be decided on August 26 when Cambridge host Unicol at John Kerkhof Park … but neither can afford to drop points before then.
Here are the rivals’ remaining fixtures:
Waikato Unicol — Taupo (a), Te Awamutu (h), Cambridge (a), Papamoa (h), Otumoetai (a)
Cambridge — Te Awamutu (a), Papamoa (a), Waikato Unicol (h), Ngongotaha Lakes (a)
Game of the week
Taupo are out of the title race but will look at their season as a ‘what-might-have-been’ campaign.
After a strong start, their form slumped when leaders Unicol and Cambridge kicked on, and Taupo have won only two of their last six fixtures.
On Saturday, they get the chance to avenge two earlier losses to Unicol, a 4-0 drubbing in April and a 2-0 loss the last time they met a month ago.
On their home turf, Taupo can perform and get their chance to prove that against the leaders.
For their part, Unicol are protecting an excellent record in which they have lost only once in 16 league games.
In the run-in to their season, this is the toughest challenge they’ll face, apart from their showdown with Cambridge in late August.
Player to watch
Taupo’s Joe O’Donoghue is now second on the competition’s goalscoring chart, with 21 goals from his 14 appearances.
He trails Cambridge’s Josh Clarkin by a single goal with four games to go.
O’Donoghue (30) fired blanks in Taupo’s previous two games against Waikato Unicol, and he only had a yellow card to show for his efforts against them.
He gets the chance to redeem himself and keep pace with Clarkin if he can fire in front of his own supporters this Saturday.
Not the boldest of predictions, I admit, but I’m tipping Unicol to hold their nerve and come away from Taupo with the three points they need.
But it could be close — in fact, I think a one-goal margin will be enough to get Unicol the win, and that largely depends on how well they contain Taupo’s Joe O’Donoghue (see above).
Last week I tipped Cambridge’s Josh Clarkin to continue his run of goals and to find the winner against Taupo. Cambridge beat Taupo 4-2, with Clarkin scoring twice.
Games to be played on Saturday August 12, 2023
Taupo v Waikato Unicol
Crown Park, Taupo, 3pm
Te Awamutu v Cambridge
The Stadium, Te Awamutu, 3pm
Otumoetai v Ngongotaha Lakes
Fergusson Park, Otumoetai, 3pm
Papamoa v Claudelands Rovers
Gordon Spratt Reserve, Papamoa, 3pm
Jack Sharp is a long-time follower of club football in New Zealand and is a volunteer writer for Friends of Football.