The SRU Caledonian League 1 is one of the hottest and fiercely contested leagues this year, but not as you might suspect at the top.
With Aberdeenshire unsurprisingly running away with the league the top position has been a fairly boring story for the rest to watch.
The real headlines are being made by the teams from third to 10th, who are all still in the dogfight to avoid relegation.
With yet another league reconstruction at this level, depending on the leagues above, there is a real danger that three teams could be dumped from Caledonian 1 and face playing at a lower level next year.
After a harrowing first half of the season fuelled by injuries and loss of confidence, they sat dead last and 12 points adrift of their nearest rivals.
Since Christmas, however, they have lit up the league again with now three great performances against very strong opposition and after this weekend have three wins from three – and two multiple try scoring bonus points in 2013.
This weekend’s opposition was perhaps their sternest test since their upturn in fortunes.
Highland are a historically strong outfit, and in the earlier fixture in Inverness in October, Mackie were found wanting up front before their fitness began to tell in the second half.
The Mackie pack has been strong in the past few games, but the initial few scrums at Redcloak on Saturday saw Highland again proving to be dominant.
With young Callum Reddish at prop, he was up against a seasoned Highlander of 39 who knew just how to disrupt the youngster, and indeed the Mackie scrum.
A quick pep talk from the coaching staff and teammate Andrew Mitchell, himself an old timer with a few tricks up his sleeve, seemed to shore things up again.
With the tussle up front in beginning to settle, both teams could win their own ball fairly comfortably and the game began to get some fluidity – although how comfortable it can be at any time in a scrum is up for discussion.
With the front row having the unenviable position of having five large men shove you headfirst into eight men pushing the other way, its no wonder they look they way they do when they eventually retire!
With the best conditions seen since November at Redcloak, the sun shining and both teams filled with vigour and at near full strength, this was a game for running rugby and with the teething problems of the scrum sorted, the backs could start to shine. Not so.
Unfortunately, the referee was playing the rulebook to the letter and where perhaps letting the game flow would be better for everyone, time after time penalty decisions were given and the game became very stop start.
Mackie were penalized often in the early exchanges for sealing off the ball at the breakdown.
Firstly, Highland gained a penalty and then further pressure from the restart saw a try for Highland. Gathering his troops under the post to watch the failed conversion attempt, Captain Craig Thompson called for continued resolve.
Straight back into the action from the kick off, and Mackie gained possession after a knock on. A period of sustained pressure and improved rucking and Mackie struck back with a period of the relentless pressure from the Mackie pack.
Pick and go after pick and go, with brute strength combined with excellent team play by the forwards resulted in young prop Jason Matahe powering over for the score.Levack converted from wide on the left.
From the kick off, Reddish gathered and made some good yards, setting a platform for a second onslaught into the Highland 22. With the Highland defences holding firm this time, there appeared no way through the frontline, when fly half Rawiri Atkins decided on an aerial attack, deftly chipping over the oncoming defensive line and regathering to score a great individual try under the posts. Levack converted from in front of the posts. Half time: Mackie 14, Highland,10.
The second half started well with great play from Gerrard and Mellis setting up Thompson for an excellent try in the right corner and then cool as ice, Levack nailed the kick from wide out to stretch the lead to 21-10.
Highland though, with some big men throughout their side, started to put the pressure on and make progress. With backs to the wall defence, unfortunately Captain Thompson was sin binned for 10 minutes for further ruck infringements, and almost immediately the extra man was made to count, as Highland scored again, but yet again the kick was missed.
Straight back up the other end after the restart, and it was Mackie awarded another penalty for Highland not rolling away. Levack slotted to pull away again, crucially leaving Highland needing two scores to win at 24-15
But just to make coaching staff and supporters sweat, a lapse in defence meant another try (unconverted) leaving it 24-20 with five minutes to go and then when Reddish was sent to the sin bin for “allegedly” kicking the ball away, it was back to the wall defence.
But this time, the Mackie resolve held firm and as the referee called full time, there were celebrations again from the south stand.
The kicking is so often the difference and unfortunately for Highland, they had a poor day with the boot. Every player on the pitch did their part and were committed from start to finish.
Special mention goes out to Ali Pittendreigh, who even shaved his legs and spent hours fashioning the correct leg tapings and polishing his boots the night before the match. Sadly, he was an unused substitute, but he made a brilliant water boy for the day – everyone was perfectly hydrated for the full 80 minutes.
Man of the match went to Jason Matehe for another storming display up front.
Mackie’s next match is against Strathmore at Redcloak this Saturday at 3pm, and the 2nd XV play Huntly in Huntly at 3pm