Can the Firebirds do it again?
It’s the burning question as the defending champions make a last-ditch tilt for a repeat Burger King Super Smash crown.
Last summer the seasoned Wellingtonians famously came back from the dead — from winless and bottom of the table to title winners after a spectacular run through the business end of the competition.
This season they currently sit fourth of the six teams on the Burger King Super Smash ladder — and only the top three sides will progress to next week's Finals Series.
However, with two rounds to play (as opposed to one match left for mid-table rivals the Canterbury Kings) Firebirds allrounder Logan van Beek says the upside is his team remains totally in control of its own destiny, with a maximum of eight points available from their two remaining games.
The Kings meanwhile still face a tough away match against front-runners the Knights on Super Sunday that they simply can not afford to lose, with just a two-point buffer.
This Friday the heat goes on the Firebirds’ final tilt with a rematch of last year's Grand Final on the very same New Plymouth turf — but now both the Birds and hosts the Central Stags find themselves facing a very different battle for survival.
The fifth-placed Stags have been hot and cold this season and, while they’re coming off a resounding win against the Volts and have hard-hitting BLACKCAP George Worker back for the crunch, they’ll be hoping they haven’t left their run too late.
That’s because even if they get up and win their last two matches to lock out the Firebirds, the Kings could still bump them out of the Finals on net run rate.
It’s a totally different picture to when the Stags went unbeaten almost to the last in 2016/17— and make no mistake, they’ll be out to avenge 2017’s shock Grand Final loss for their beloved Pukekura Park crowd.
After the impending Friday showdown (4pm 12 January), the Stags and Firebirds both head off to Wellington's Basin Reserve to play each other again in Super Sunday’s decisive last round.
Taking it one match at a time, does having beaten the Stags in their own Pukekura Park cauldron last summer still have any context for the Firebirds heading into the big rematch tomorrow?
“The biggest difference that I noticed today with the Firebirds training at Pukekura Park was that when I was here with the Canterbury Kings, we didn’t have too many wins here in Stags territory,” says Logan van Beek, “whereas the [Firebirds] boys, because they had such a good experience last year in that Grand Final, and good memories, there was a really good energy around training at Pukekura Park.
“I mean, a lot of bowlers come here and think, ‘Oh no, Pukekura Park…’ — but we’ve come here optimistic and that’s definitely going to help.”
It also helps that Taranaki’s weather forecast has dramatically improved over the past few days.
“Yeah, we were looking at the early forecasts a few days ago and it was predicting rain, rain, rain; but the forecast is good now and it looks like we will have an opportunity for four points.”
Ironically for van Beek (above), he also finds himself feeling mighty relieved his former teammates copped a loss yesterday in a high stakes showdown at Eden Park Outer Oval.
“The Aces beating the Kings was a good result for us because now it means if we win these next two games, that means we’ll be in the Finals. That’s all you want — to be able to control your own destiny. I would have hated to have been at this stage of the competition and out of it already.
“We’ve had a couple of close games. We’ve lost off the last ball. A couple of other games we should have won and didn’t, so we’re just happy to be in this position now.”
Still, the intrigue and closeness of the leaderboard has been very good for New Zealand’s T20 showcase, he says. “It’s exciting that it’s all going down to the last round! Even last season, when I was playing for the Kings, we only got through on net run rate because the Aces bowled a wide in the last round or something like that — it was that close, we got through by only 0.01 of a point!”
As for tomorrow, he’s not making any concrete predictions.
“It all depends on what kind of Pukekura Park you’re going to get on the day. Sometimes as a bowler you have to ‘go death’ there a little bit earlier; sometimes the spinners are hard to get away. Other times you can just go hard length the whole time. It’s definitely never the same each time I come here, but always a good challenge!”