Curtain-raiser worthy of top billing
It's a rare occasion when a curtain-raiser garners the same attention as the main game but on Sunday afternoon all eyes will be on the Northern Pride as they look to wrap up the Intrust Super Cup minor premiership against nearest rivals Tweed Heads Seagulls at Barlow Park in Cairns.
The crucial Round 22 ISC clash will kick-off at 12.30pm as the curtain-raiser to the Round 21 NRL match between South Sydney and Newcastle with much more at stake than two competition points for the two high-flying teams.
Currently sitting top of the ISC ladder on 36 points, the Pride can virtually seal the minor premiership with victory over the second-placed Seagulls, who sit on 31 points with four rounds remaining after the completion of this weekend's matches.
The Barlow Park showdown is likely to attract around 15,000 fans with many of those expected to be decked out in their teal and gold Pride jerseys. It's set to be a big occasion worthy of a minor premiership playoff, although according to Pride coach Jason Demetriou, it's business as usual.
"It'll be our biggest game of the year at home and it certainly will help us playing in front of a big crowd," Demetriou said.
"A lot of our supporters from around the region who don't come here very often will be there, so it's a good opportunity for the boys to put their best foot forward.
"For us it's about building towards finals. We're not really bothered about our league position; obviously it's handy to be where we are, but it's not something we're focused on.
"We're just concentrating on improving this week. We spoke about it last week when we played Wynnum, a top four side, and we'll be backing that up this week against another top side so we need to be playing some consistent footy."
The Pride will need to lift to another level against Tweed with the Seagulls the only side in the ISC that have a winning record over last year's minor premiers. The Seagulls enjoy a 9-5 head-to-head record over the Pride and last defeated them in Round 11 with a 29-26 victory at Piggabeen Sports.
It shapes as a different equation away from home for the Seagulls though as the Pride have won their past nine games at home.
Tweed Heads are currently on a 12-game unbeaten streak and have won five out of the past six clashes against the Pride, making them a true bogey side for the northerners. To seal top spot on the ladder the Pride will be relying heavily on their Queensland Residents contingent of Shaun Nona, Davin Crampton, Javid Bowen, Ben Spina and Blake Leary.
They are just a handful of players Demetriou is looking towards to get the job done against a Seagulls side containing a number of fringe Gold Coast Titans players including Sam Irwin, Tom Kingston and Caleb Binge.
"Over the past couple of weeks Blake Leary and Shaun Nona have been outstanding and Davin Crampton's versatility has been a real asset to us," he said.
"So we're looking to those guys to step up along with Tyrone McCarthy and Ben Spina who have also shown that they are NRL-quality as well."
The Pride remain determined to go on with the job this season as they look to redeem last year's finals fadeout, where they sensationally crashed out one game short of the grand final.
Finishing four points clear at the top of the ladder after a dominant 2013 season, the Pride lost back-to-back matches during the finals series with the Intrust Super Cup eventually won by the Mackey Cutters.
Demetriou says his side dealt with the pain of their 2013 finals exit in pre-season and he holds a quiet confidence that they can go all the way this year.
"I think at the moment the players are pretty hungry," he said. "We are still feeling the hurt from the way we finished the season last year, so that will drive us forward."
The match will be televised throughout Queensland with Channel Nine's delayed coverage beginning at 2pm.