PREVIEW: Southern Conference quickly turning into a two-club title race

By Jack Sharp

Leading pair Cambridge and Otumoetai get the chance to slip well clear of the rest if they both win their games in Round 5 of the Lotto NRFL Southern Conference.

Cambridge head to Te Awamutu for a Waipa Derby with distinctly different records.

While Cambridge have won four from four, Te Awamutu are bottom of the table and are the only side in the competition yet to win.

Taupo’s George Green (left) is brought down by Te Awamutu’s Michael Roberts in Round 4. Photo credit: Rachel Lilburn.

Game of the week

Second-placed Otumoetai are unbeaten and have a more difficult assignment than rivals Cambridge, with the visit of Taupo, who can be a real handful on the right day.

No side varies its form as much as Taupo.

They hammered Claudelands Rovers 5-0 in Round 1, lost 4-3 to Cambridge, lost 2-1 to Papamoa and then cruised past Te Awamutu 3-0 last week.

Their success seems to depend on which players are available — when goalscorer Joe O’Donoghue plays, they’re hard to stop (he’s played only once this season, in the 5-0 romp against Claudelands Rovers).

To get their season on track, Taupo must win at Otumoetai’s Fergusson Park.

Otumoetai finished last season strongly and emerged in pre-season as serious contenders for this year’s conference.

If Otumoetai take the three points, it’ll put a seven-point break on Taupo, meaning they and Cambridge could have already turned the competition into a two-club race.

And that will conjure a high-stakes match-up in Round 6 on Saturday May 4 when Cambridge host Otumoetai.

Player to watch

Steffano Riley.

Forward Steffano Riley has made a blistering start to his season at Ngongotaha Lakes, signing for the club after spells in the United States with now-defunct USL League Two club Grand Rapids FC.

Riley (24) grew up in Rotorua, playing for John Paul College and making his first-team debut for Rotorua United in the WaiBOP Premiership when he was 15.

He’s had spells with Tauranga City and Hamilton Wanderers but has signed this season with Ngongotaha Lakes.

Riley missed the season opener — a 5-0 loss to Cambridge — but he’s scored in all three appearances since, including a double in last weekend’s 5-2 loss to Otumoetai.

Ngongotaha Lakes might be second bottom but they’ve had a difficult start to their schedule, and if Riley can cut loose, he could inspire his new team up the table.

They meet last year’s champions Waikato Unicol this weekend. Given that Unicol have conceded 13 goals already this season, Riley might well get on the scoresheet for a fourth game in a row.

Bold prediction

Papamoa have faced three of the competition’s big guns early — champions Waikato Unicol in the opening round, followed by current leaders Cambridge and third-placed Taupo.

They should find it easier at home to Claudelands Rovers this weekend, even though Rovers beat Unicol last time out.

Conditions can get tricky on the coast, and Papamoa’s home advantage at Gordon Spratt Reserve can be helped when visiting teams struggle to cope with the sea breeze.

I’ll tip Papamoa to win by a couple of goals.

Last week, I predicted Claudelands Rovers would end their drought and beat last season’s champions Waikato Unicol. Rovers won 4-2 for their first win of the season.


Games to be played on Saturday April 27, 2024

Papamoa v Claudelands Rovers
Gordon Spratt Reserve, Papamoa, 3pm

Te Awamutu v Cambridge
The Stadium, Te Awamutu, 3pm

Otumoetai v Taupo
Fergusson Park, Otumoetai, 3pm

Waikato Unicol v Ngongotaha Lakes
Waikato Unicol, Hamilton, 3pm

Jack Sharp

Jack Sharp is a long-time follower of club football in New Zealand and is a volunteer writer for Friends of Football. You can show your appreciation for his work by buying him a coffee.

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