Merewether face two must-win matches to finish the regular season and keep alive their bid for a record-equalling sixth straight major premiership.
The fifth-placed Lions, who haven’t missed a Newcastle District Cricket Association finals series since 2009-2010, find themselves in unfamiliar territory with a pair of two-dayers remaining.
The five-time reigning champions sit six points adrift of the top four and depending on results, including their own against Charlestown at Townson Oval and Cardiff-Boolaroo away, they could leapfrog into semis or slip back considerably.
“It’s a bit cliche, but the past couple of games we’ve basically been playing knockout cricket,” Merewether all-rounder Josh Geary said. “It didn’t help getting called off last weekend, but if we lose now we’re done and dusted. It’s a bit of a sea change for us.”
The Lions are without Australian Country all-rounder Pat Darwen and Vanuatu batsman Jono Dunn for round 18 with Sam Palmer and Sam Gilmour called up to fill the void by captain Simon Moore.
Charlestown, who are seventh but only four points behind Merewether, have just one change for the vital game with Jackson Mace, nephew of Magpies skipper Steve, in for Daniel Arms.
Elsewhere and fourth-placed University welcome back all-rounder Luke Bird, despite his recent move to Coffs Harbour, to play an unchanged Cardiff-Boolaroo at Callaghan Campus and help the Tom Locker Cup winners seal a semi-final position.
Opening batsman Greg Hunt and teenage leg-spinner Toby Gray return for leaders Belmont, who will attempt to wrap up the minor premiership with a win over Newcastle City at Cahill Oval.
Hamilton-Wickham are down both skipper Josh Trappel (work) and key all-rounder Mark Dries (personal) as the second-placed side meets at No.1 Sportsground to play Wallsend, who replace Aiden White with Travis Landers.
NSW Country off-spinner Nick Foster is missing from Stockton-Raymond Terrace with Bush Blues representative duties next weekend. The Seagulls are at home at Lynn Oval against eighth-placed Waratah-Mayfield, who swap Blake Morley in for Scott Shephard.
And in a crunch encounter sixth-placed Wests, who have opening bowler Tom Allen back in the attack, are away to third-placed Toronto at Ron Hill Oval.
LADDER: Belmont 80, Hamilton-Wickham 68, Toronto 58, University 57, Merewether 51, Wests 48, Charlestown 47, Waratah-Mayfield 42, Newcastle City 39, Stockton-Raymond Terrace 35, Wallsend 32, Cardiff-Boolaroo 14.