HAMILTON coach Scott Coleman believes Merewether Carlton have returned to their premiership-winning form and will be the team to beat if they repeat their performance from Saturday’s 35-22 win over his ladder-leading Hawks.
The Greens went through undefeated to take the 2011 Newcastle and Hunter Rugby Union title but have shown few signs of that form this season.
However, they were back to their best at Townson Oval as they took a major step towards sealing a top-three finish while taking hold of the Hawthorne Cup.
Sam Clifton crossed twice in the five-tries-to-three win in which the Greens led 24-7 at half-time.
And with second-placed Southern Beaches suffering a shock 26-24 loss to Lake Macquarie at Walters Park, Coleman said the Greens were emerging as major premiership favourites.
‘‘If they play the way they did yesterday for the rest of the year, they’re probably No.1 contenders to be honest,’’ Coleman said. ‘‘They absolutely gave us a lesson.
‘‘They were on top from the start. We were really flat and they outclassed and outenthused us. We scored two intercept tries to even get close.
‘‘They bashed us in the set pieces and we’re usually really strong there, and they played with so much width, we couldn’t handle them.’’
Key Hawks forwards Paul Dan (ankle) and Chris Stratton (hamstring) pulled out on game day with injuries but Coleman said that had little impact on the result because Steve Sione and Jack Meadows were more than adequate replacements.
Merewether coach Stacey Sykes was ecstatic with the performance but played down his side’s place in the title reckoning.
‘‘We were nearly full strength and they had a couple out, and although we had a good win, you’d have to say on form this year them and Beaches are the two sides to beat,’’ Sykes said.
‘‘It was an important win for us though because if we didn’t put a good game together and lost, it would have put us under pressure next week against Maitland in the fight for a top-three spot.
‘‘It was a mini grand final for us and the guys responded.’’
Greens second-rower Ed Macdonald celebrated his 100th first-grade game with a try and a typical hard-working performance, while back-rowers Dan Kevill and Mark Wade were also outstanding.
‘‘We’ve had a mixed year up until now and we needed to put a good performance on the park between now and the semis to see if we’re up to that level and we proved we can be,’’ Sykes said. ‘‘Hopefully we can get some momentum out of it into the finals.’’
A knee injury to Mick Gill was the only negative for Merewether, but Sykes said the club was hopeful the problem was only minor.
Elsewhere in round 15, Nelson Bay beat Singleton 27-7 at Bill Strong Oval, Maitland thumped University 59-21 at Uni No.1 Oval and Wanderers defeated The Waratahs 46-19 at Passmore Oval.