IT'S still only June, but the stakes are high for South Bendigo and Eaglehawk as far as their BFNL September chances are concerned on Saturday.
Although there are still eight rounds left to play, there's seemingly only one finals berth left up for grabs given the ground work the top four sides Gisborne (36), Strathfieldsaye (32), Golden Square (28) and Kyneton (28) have laid over their first 10 games.
Behind the top four are three teams - Sandhurst, Eaglehawk and South Bendigo - all on 5-5 records and separated by percentage from fifth to seventh.
Put simply, unless one of those top four teams falls away significantly from here, there's going to be room for just one of the Dragons, Hawks or Bloods in the finals come September.
And that's what makes the Bloods-Hawks clash at the QEO such a pivotal contest for both given the loser is going to be left with a mountain of work to do, particularly if it's South Bendigo given its poor percentage of 90.8 compared to Sandhurst's 135.7 and Eaglehawk's 109.6.
"It's a huge game, but also a big three weeks for us coming up with games against Sandhurst and Kyneton as well," South Bendigo coach Nathan Horbury said on Friday.
"I think our gamestyle is well suited to the QEO and if we can stick to it long enough then I think we can get the job done... we're not under-estimating the game in terms of the importance of it for our season.
"And I'm sure Eaglehawk would be saying the exact same thing, so it's going to be a big one."
A source of frustration for Horbury this season has been a glaring gap in the best and worst of the Bloods.
South Bendigo's five wins include victories over top-five sides Sandhurst and Kyneton and the Bloods also pushed second-placed Strathfieldsaye to the brink in round seven when they lost to the Storm by one point, while there has also been four losses by 50-plus points, including last week's 93-point hiding from Golden Square and a 56-point defeat against Eaglehawk back on Good Friday.
"We've spoken about that since I joined the club back in 2019; our good footy is very good and has come a long way since I started, but we just can't seem to close that gap," said Horbury, Premier Data's No.4 ranked player in the competition.
"I thought we were a lot better last year before COVID hit in terms of closing that gap between our best and worst, but this year we've allowed teams to get on runs and kick six or seven goals in a row and don't react quick enough.
"Hopefully, we can draw back on our really good performances and continue to build off that.
"We know if we play like we did against Golden Square last week Eaglehawk will get hold of us."
The Bloods welcome back midfielder Liam Byrne, wingman Ollie Simpson, defender Cameron Taggert and Sam Maher for the crunch game with the Hawks, but key on-baller Cooper Leon (finger) is facing another week on the sidelines.
Saturday's game starts at 2.20pm.
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