A hat-trick of tries to five eighth Chad O'Donnell in the first 18 minutes launched the Maitland Pickers to a convincing 43-16 win over Cessnock and, in doing so, left no doubt about their premiership favouritism.
The Goannas had been the only side to beat Maitland this season - they won 24-22 at Maitland Sportsground in round three - but the overwhelming eight tries to three win on Saturday in front of Cessnock's home crowd was a statement of intent from Maitland.
O'Donnell's hard, direct running put Cessnock on the back foot early in what was his best game of the season. The fact the Pickers were running into a strong breeze only made their first half effort more impressive.
Winger Perry Le Brocque also scored a hat trick, and in the process broke Cessnock's heart with two 80 metre intercept tries just as they were looking dangerous.
And in the middle Sam Anderson and a Jayden Butterfield gave Maitland a good platform, with Matt Soper-Lawler a strong presence at fullback.
Cessnock did well to fight their way back after trailing 16-0 after 18 minutes.
Wily veteran Liam Foran came on from the bench and gave Cessnock more width and more options.
Combined with some fiery defence from halfback AJ Davis, the Goannas had lifted and managed to claw their way back into the contest - something very few teams have been able to do against Maitland this season.
An opportunist try under the posts to hooker Billy Gilbert, followed by a second to winger Brendan Williams got them back to 16-10 before the first of Le Brocque's intercepts.
At 23-10 at half time Cessnock weren't totally out of the match, but Maitland finished too strongly, winning the second stanza 20-6.
"Cessnock were near full strength and have a lot of good attacking players - Harry O'Brien was back, both the halves are skilful, Tyrone Roberts-Davis, their backrowers are all good players ... so yes, delighted to have won it the way we did," Pickers coach Matt Lantry said.
Bulldogs get season back on track
Kurri, after a really challenging run with results, injuries and judiciary hearings, bounced back with a gutsy home 22-14 win over The Entrance.
It was exactly the sort of follow up the club was looking for after such a strong showing against second-placed Central Newcastle the previous week which resulted in a late and somewhat unfortunate 30-22 loss.
The match was tight from the start - the half time score was 12-8 - and Kurri showed resilience to hold out in the second half, especially when they lost Jordan Mitchell to the sin bin in the 65th minute.
Mitch Cullen's team currently lie in eighth position on the ladder on for and against - they are one of four teams (along with Wests, The Entrance and Wyong) locked on eight points, six behind fourth placed Macquarie.
But after a catch-up game at home against Maitland this Sunday, the draw over the next couple of weeks could see Kurri climb the ladder pretty quickly.
On July 3, Kurri meet Wests at Harker, while both Wyong and The Entrance have tough assignments against Macquarie and Central.
If things go their way Kurri could be up to fifth.
The week after that Kurri are at home to Macquarie, while Wyong take on Cessnock and Wests meet Central.
Don't write the Bulldogs off. After a mid season slump and a handful of injuries, things look like they're starting to fall in to place.
Rebels face Canberra
Representative footy is back on Saturday when the Newcastle Rebels take on Canberra at Maitland Sportsground. Kick off is at 3pm.