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Pawson, who guiding New Brighton to the 2013 title in his first season in charge, was pensive as he assessed the playing group at Rawhiti Domain in March.
“We lost about 15 players from the div one and two squads (from 2021). A couple of weeks before the season started we were wondering how we’d get a team out,” he said.
“It was a tough pre-season and 10 weeks later we’re top of the table, I wouldn’t have believed that 10 weeks ago. We had no expectation to be where we are at the moment,” said Pawson, who returned to the role last season after taking a break in 2020.
New Brighton overtook Sydenham at the top of the table by beating winless Burnside last weekend, while Lincoln University defeated the previous leaders.
Ninth in their centenary season last year, New Brighton have only one blemish on their record, a third round loss to Sydenham in April.
Since then they have recorded notable victories against Lincoln University and champions Marist Albion, a one-point victory over the latter last month was also rewarded with the competition’s equivalent of the Ranfurly Shield.
“To be fair to those teams they had a few under-20s guys out (at a Super Rugby tournament) but from our end, we got belief winning the DCL Shield.
“They still put out a good side against us so they guys are starting to go: ‘We can compete with these top teams’,” Pawson said.
He was also mindful of two tough tests coming up against sixth-ranked Linwood on Saturday and HSOB (fourth) next weekend.
“A lot of it will depend on luck with injuries. if we get a few injuries we might struggle a wee bit,” he said.
Pawson credited the impact of former Crusaders utility back and Samoa international Kieron Fonotia joining the coaching staff, plus a relatively relaxed approach to the game.
“Kieron’s been a breath of fresh air for the young guys and we’re actually enjoying our footy,” Pawson said.
“You try and be as professional as you can, but these guys work 40 hours a week and some are in high pressure jobs.
“We’ve decided to enjoy club footy rather than over analyse, and the guys have responded really well to that.”
Developing experience has also been key.
“Last year we had to use a lot of colts and they weren’t used to premier rugby. This year we’ve seen the growth, they actually know how to get through a season,” Pawson said.
New Brighton and Linwood at Rawhiti Domain qualifies as the match of the round, while Sydenham seek to get back on track against the University of Canterbury.
The Southern League has entered the second half of its season but the Chatham Cup knockout competition takes precedence this week.
In a second round clash delayed by Covid-19, Coastal Spirit thrashed second-tier Parklands United 7-0 on Tuesday night to book a trip to fellow Nelson Suburbs on Sunday. Jack Mitchell led the scoring spree with four goals.
Holders Cashmere Technical take on Ferrymead Bays on Saturday, a week after they drew 1-1 in a closely fought league encounter.
The stalemate has given unbeaten Christchurch United, who were knocked out of the Chatham Cup by Ferrymead Bays in the previous round, a five-point buffer atop the league after they beat Coastal Spirit 4-0.
Selwyn United climbed off the foot of the table thanks to a 2-2 draw with Nomads United meaning that unwanted place is now occupied by Dunedin’s Green Island on goal difference.
Linwood continued to avenge a rare Canterbury Rugby league premiership grand final loss to Hornby by extending the defending champion’s struggles with a tense 28-24 victory to stay unbeaten.
The Keas beat the Panthers by 20 points in round two but had to settle for a narrower margin last Saturday after Hornby led 24-18 midway through the second spell at Leslie Park.
However, late tries to Makarini Mohi and Kyle Amer enabled the competition leaders to consign their rivals to sixth place, and ensure Mike Nicholls-Cane celebrated his 100th premier game in style.
Second and third-ranked Halswell and the Eastern Eagles solidified their playoff hopes by beating Papanui 86-0 and Celebration Lions 42-18 respectively.
The Northern Bulldogs replaced Riccarton in fourth by edging the Knights 22-20.
Linwood again features in the highlight of ninth round action when they host an Eastern Eagles side again keen to prove they are genuine contenders.
Weekend match ups:
Christchurch Metro Premier rugby 10th round fixtures (all Saturday 2.45pm): University of Canterbury v Sydenham, Ilam Fields; Lincoln University v Shirley, Lincoln University; Sumner v Burnside, St Leonards Square; Christchurch v Marist Albion, Christchurch Park; Belfast v HSOB, Sheldon Park; New Brighton v Linwood, Rawhiti Domain.
Chatham Cup football local third round fixtures: Ferrymead Bays v Cashmere Technical, Ferrymead Park, Saturday 2.30pm; Nelson United v Parkland United/Coastal Spirit, Saxton Oval, Sunday 2pm.
Canterbury Rugby League Premiership ninth round fixtures (all Saturday 2.45pm): Linwood Keas v Eastern Eagles, Linwood Park; Riccarton Knights v Hornby Panthers, Crosbie Park; Celebration Lions v Halswell Hornets, Cuthberts Green; Papanui Tigers v Northern Bulldogs, Papanui Domain.