WALLSEND and University are set to clash in a last-round blockbuster that could ultimately determine who enjoys home-ground advantage in the Newcastle District Cricket Association first-grade final.
With No.1 Sportsground out of action while it undergoes major renovations, NDCA officials have voted to allocate semi-final venues to the top two qualifiers after the preliminary rounds.
"Without No.1, we decided earlier in the season that the higher-seeded clubs would get first rights to host," NDCA chairman Paul Marjoribanks said.
"It's just too hard to organise neutral venues.
"Unless the clubs are actually participating, you run into logistical issues like who will put the covers down and take them off.
"So the top two seeds will have first option to host the semis, and then the highest qualifier will host the final."
Before the penultimate round of matches started last Saturday, Wallsend (51 points) held a narrow lead in the race for the minor premiership, ahead of Wests and Hamilton-Wickham (both 49) and Uni (47).
Merewether (42), Belmont (38) and Charlestown (37) are realistically the only other teams in contention.
Wests and Hamwicks are locked in a fierce battle at Passmore Oval, but both Wallsend and Uni are well on their way to outright victories against Waratah-Mayfield and Newcastle City respectively.
The Tigers and Students have already won on the first innings and will be chasing maximum points when play resumes on Saturday.
If successful, they will be first and second on the points table heading into their last-round showdown at University Oval.
The prospect of Wallsend hosting a semi-final and potentially the decider will not be welcomed by some rivals, mainly because of the shoebox-sized dressing rooms.
But Marjoribanks said on-field facilities were the priority. "And we're very lucky that the top four teams at the moment, their home grounds are all in great shape," he said.
Meanwhile, on the subject of No.1 Sportsground, it remains uncertain how long it will be out of commission during the makeover that will expand its playing field, improve drainage and irrigation, replace turf and upgrade floodlights.
The contrast between Newcastle cricket's spiritual home and North Dalton Park in Wollongong could hardly be more stark.
Newcastle has hosted 16 Sheffield Shield matches, but none since 2015.
North Dalton Park has hosted Shield games in 2017 and 2018 and was also used earlier this season for Women's Big Bash League fixtures.
NSW will play the Shield final at North Dalton if they finish on top of the table.
** NEWCASTLE'S district cricketers have been on their best behaviour this season, prompting congratulations from NDCA chairman Paul Marjoribanks and code-of-conduct commissioner Jerry Tombleson.
With one-and-a-half rounds remaining in the regular season, the NDCA has not had a single judiciary hearing this summer.
The only transgression was when Newcastle captain Nathan Price was issued a four-game ban after he was found guilty by the NSW Country judiciary of dissent during a representative match in October.
The exemplary on-field conduct was acknowledged in a recent email from Tombleson to the 12 district clubs.
"I would like all clubs to pass on congratulations and thanks to their players," he wrote.
"In the 25 years I have been involved in the NDCA judiciary system in one role or another, this is the first season where not a single player has been cited for a breach of the NDCA code of conduct, in an NDCA-administered competition ... well done to everybody."
Marjoribanks felt that the mandatory captains-and-umpires meeting after each game - a policy introduced at the start of this season - was a contributing factor.
"They are not formal meetings and may only last a few minutes, but it's chance for both parties to clear the air on any match incidents of concern," he said.
"It's also an opportunity to build greater rapport between the umpires and captains."
** JASON Sangha's recall to the NSW Sheffield Shield side might be short-lived.
Dismissed for five in the first innings of this week's clash with South Australia at Bankstown, the Novocastrian missed out on a dig in the second innings when the Blues declared at 2-236.
The rest of the NSW batsmen filled their boots, and the return of Moises Henriques and Kurtis Patterson from Australia A duties means someone will have to make way for their next game, against Tasmania in Hobart, starting on March 6.
** BELMONT quick Dan Bailey is poised to cap a big season by finishing as the leading wicket-taker in the first-grade competition.
With two games to play, Bailey has 32 wickets to his name, three more than Waratah's Nathan Hudson.
The big right-armer was the hero of Lake Mac Attack's Regional Bash triumph, taking 5-17 in the final against ACT Aces. He picked up 4-28 in Belmont's loss to Hamwicks in the recent Summer Bash decider.
The leading runscorer is Wallsend's Jacob Montgomery, with 644.
** TORONTO Workers teenager Aidan Fealy upheld a family tradition last weekend when he made his top-grade debut.
The wicket-keeper, who is still eligible for under-16s, is the son of Dan Fealy, who played first grade for the Kookaburras in the mid-1990s. Another Kookaburra to reach a milestone is stalwart Steve Wratten, who has posted his 2000th run for the club.
** WESTS are still chasing players for their annual double-wicket competition, which will be held at Harker Oval on Sunday. Today is the closing day for nominations.