AN intriguing battle between the undefeated Ultima and improving Hay highlights a critical round of Golden Rivers Football League round nine matches.
The 'Roos are on the verge of becoming the first team since Nullawil in 2010 to go through the first half of the season undefeated, whilst the Lions are well placed to play finals for the second time in the past three seasons.
Both teams go into tomorrow's match on the back of victories – Ultima recorded a 41-point win against Quambatook on June 3, whilst Hay was too strong at home against Murrabit, prevailing by 26 points.
Although last season's grand finalists will not relinquish top spot on the ladder with a loss, the Lions could fall out of the top four if defeated, depending on results at other matches.
Both coaches will be presented with challenges to overcome to begin the final section of the season on a positive note. Jack O'Rourke will need to work out a way of stopping key Lions forward, Jackson Ferguson from dominating, whilst fellow coach, Taylor Williamson will have to look to his players to prevent Ultima's multi-pronged forward line from controlling play.
Andrew Low will be critical to Hay's hopes in the back line, but will need extra support to stop Ryan Devereux, Stephen Lyons and Arnold Kirby from controlling play.
Luke Kelson will be O'Rourke's top option to stop Ferguson, but Williamson can be just as dangerous if given the freedom to run with the ball.
Although Hay defeated Ultima by 10 points when the sides last met in round 13, 2016, the Lions have not won at the Mallee-based venue in its past four attempts. This run will continue tomorrow.
PREDICTION: Ultima will win by 20 points.
Special day for rivals
THERE will be more than four points on offer tomorrow at Murrabit when the defending premiers take on second-placed Wandella.
The Blues will host the club's 2007 premiership winning side – with Josh Bray, Nick Hein, Nathan Henry, Simon Morton and Simon Ettershank still playing for the defending premiers a decade on.
Ryan Lancaster, Tim Robinson and Sam Taylor are the remaining Bombers from the club's 76-point grand final loss – the final decider to be held at Kerang's Riverside Park – and the side will be out to spoil the Blues' party.
Both sides went into the Queen's Birthday break on the back of losses – Murrabit went down to Hay by 26 points, whilst Wandella was no match for Nullawil in a 22-point defeat.
This is a critical match for the finals hopes of both sides. A home-team win will see the side sit outside the top four only by percentage and level on wins with Wandella, whilst a Bombers victory will see last season's semi-finalists remain second on the ladder and leave the Blues at least one win outside the top four.
The key to this match will be Murrabit's midfield. If the likes of Bryden Morison and Morton can outsmart Daniel Baker and Jaden McGrath, then the hosts will record a fourth consecutive win against their local rivals.
However, if Wandella can get the ball into its forward line regularly, Paul Grayling and Sam Sperling will be too strong for Dylan Morison and Bray.
Murrabit also boasts a strong forward line, thanks to Hugh Foott and Henry, with Tim Robinson's role on the premiership-winning coach to be critical.
Murrabit won both encounters between these sides in 2016, with the margins ranging from 48 points in six to four points in round 13.
PREDICTION: Wandella will record its first win against Murrabit since round one, 2015 with a 20-point victory.
Maroons look to climb
NULLAWIL will look to move to second spot on the GRFL ladder tomorrow with a win against the winless Macorna.
Depending on results, the Maroons could sit one win ahead of Hay and Wandella going into the second half of the season, but this depends on the outcome of matches at Ultima and Murrabit.
Grant Ford's side holds a strong record against the Tigers at home. The last time Macorna prevailed at the Nullawil Recreation Reserve was in 2008 – the last time the Maroons missed the finals.
If Michael Rowe's team breaks through for its first win of the season, it will be one of the upsets of the year, especially with the depth the hosts possess.
Kal Heslop and Andrew Oberdorfer could kick multiple goals for the hosts if Lachlan Allison and Macorna's fellow defenders cannot stem the forwards' dominance, whilst Scott Mathiske and Daniel Watts will be too strong for Jessi Lampi and company in the midfield.
Although Macorna won by four points at home in muddy conditions in round 13, 2016, the Maroons prevailed by 25 points earlier in the season. A much larger result will occur tomorrow.
PREDICTION: Nullawil will win by 80 points.
Saints' percentage boost
QUAMBATOOK will look to push its percentage into triple figures tomorrow with a big win against Wakool.
The Saints sit two wins outside the top four, but trail fifth-placed Murrabit by one victory and 54 per cent.
The Hawks will look to put in a competitive performance, with the club's six losses this season resulting in 100-plus point margins.
If William Barden and Andrew Hughes are able to benefit from the midfield efforts of Jack Baker and Gregor Knight, the visitors could have a day out.
However, if Wakool's midfielders click – led by Tyson Webb – and are able to get the ball to Luke Kirkland and Joe Thompson, an upset could be on the cards.
The only thing going against the Hawks this year is the lack of goals kicked each game. Apart from the side's round three win against Macorna – in which Wakool kicked 17 goals – the team has not surpassed eight majors a game.
This pattern will continue tomorrow, especially with Ash Davis and Luke Parker controlling proceedings in Quambatook's back line.
PREDICTION: Quambatook will win by at least 80 points.
* MOULAMEIN has the bye.