GUNNEDAH Bulldogs dropped from third to fifth on the ladder when beaten by the Kootingal-Moonbi Roosters at Kootingal Oval on Sunday.
It was a costly loss as it allowed the Roosters to jump from fourth to third on the ladder as well as allowing the Narrabri Blues, after their 40-22 win over Werris Creek at Narrabri on Sunday, to leapfrog the Bulldogs on for and against.
Narrabri club president Michael Gleeson said it was now "very interesting" in the semi-final race with four points separating five teams jostling for the final three semi-final berths.
While North Tamworth remain odds-on favourites to win a sixth successive premiership after their 44-16 win over Dungowan on Saturday - all the other sides are caught in a tense battle to see who makes the semi-final series and in what order.
Werris Creek are second on 12 points but after successive losses to Norths and Narrabri need to "dig ourselves out of a hole", according to co-coach Ron Dellar.
One point behind the Magpies are surging Kootingal-Moonbi, the Roosters starting to find form and eradicate mistakes after two successive wins.
Narrabri celebrated their 18-point win over Werris Creek - thanks to five Brenton Cochrane tries - by claiming fourth spot from Gunnedah. Both sides have 10 points, with Boggabri on eight.
Dungowan languish last on four points and must beat Gunnedah this Saturday at Dungowan Recreation Reserve to have any chance of making the semis.
Gunnedah are also desperate for a win. Their disrupted season continued last Sunday with a number of absentees due to injury, work and other commitments.
While beaten, the Bulldogs had their opportunities, said coach John Hickey.
"We defended well and had our chance to take control and win the game," he said.
"The score did blow out in the end. We did set ourselves up but didn't go on with it.
"Kootingal deserved their win though. They were too good for us. I thought their halfback (Jordan Sharpe) was really, really good and they were a bit better than us on the fringes."
The Gunnedah injury woes continued with Rory Harding injuring a knee after just 20 minutes and representative prop Lincon Smith coming off after 30 minutes and never returning after suffering muscle spasms in the back.
It meant young Bulldog, Zac Turnbull, played big minutes. After helping his under-18 side to an 18-4 win over Kootingal, he played in the 28-20 reserve-grade loss to the Roosters and then backed up in first grade.
"He did a great job," John Hickey said.
Hickey thought back-rower Matt Baker was outstanding, with Jason Smith and Dan Russell also working hard throughout.
"We play Dungowan now at Dungowan. That's going to be tough but we will have Matt Brady back and that will change our ability to break the line, while his defence around the ruck is also very good," Hickey said.
"Sure the boys were disappointed after the loss to Kootingal but it's not the end of the season and was a hiccup."
The other Saturday game is a rip roaring clash at David Taylor Park - Werris Creek taking on Kootingal-Moonbi.
On Sunday, North Tamworth host Boggabri at Jack Woolaston Oval.
TOOHEYS GROUP 4 FIRST GRADE LADDER
P W L D Bye For A Diff Pts
NORTH TAMWORTH 9 8 0 0 1 428 120 308 18
WERRIS CREEK 9 5 3 0 1 252 236 16 12
KOOTINGAL 9 4 4 0 1 206 231 -25 11
NARRABRI 9 4 4 0 1 277 282 -5 10
GUNNEDAH 9 3 4 0 2 162 204 -42 10
BOGGABRI 9 2 5 0 2 142 256 -114 8
DUNGOWAN 9 1 6 0 1 160 298 -138 4
- Kootingal receive a point for losing to Narrabri in golden point extra time.