WAGGA Tigers have been hit hard by a key injury, unavailability and suspension as they look to put their recent form surge to the test against Ganmain-Grong Grong-Matong at Robertson Oval on Saturday.
Creative half-back Charlie Bance has injured his hamstring for the third time this year and is expected to miss three to four weeks, meaning he is racing the clock to be fit for the start of Riverina League finals.
Nick Ryan has also accepted a one-week ban with an early plea after he was cited by Coolamon for striking Jeremy Maslin during the Tigers' victory at Kindra Park last week.
Bance has endured a frustrating run with his hamstring which has limited him to nine games this year, and he won't be rushed back.
"He's having a few issues there, maybe he's got to start looking at doing something different in rehab," Stephenson said.
"I'd be saying at least three to four (weeks). Probably the cautious thing is to wait until then (finals)."
Ryan's strike on Maslin in the fourth quarter was deemed intentional, of low impact and high contact.
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The loss of key personnel is the last thing the Tigers (7-5) need after their 24-point win over Coolamon put them right in the hunt for a top three spot, and a double chance in finals.
They sit just behind third-placed Collingullie-Glenfield Park (8-5) but have a superior percentage, while the struggling Hoppers are still in the hunt at 7-6.
The Tigers have won three of their last four games, the only loss in that period against second-placed Mangoplah-Cookardinia United-Eastlakes.
But they step up a weight division against the Lions, who comfortably beat the Goannas last week to leap to the top of the ladder.
The Lions beat the Tigers by 62 points at Ganmain in round six but Stephenson, who re-signed with the club until the end of 2024 this week, is confident they're better placed to provide a contest.
"They're pretty strong and have got the form on the board, but we've been starting to play some better footy and seeing some good progress," Stephenson said.
"With young guys early in the year you're going to see some inexperience, but now they've got 10-15 games under their belt and understand what their role is, and what's required to play at that level.
"They (Lions) are a good all-round team. They do have their good players, but get a good contribution from all 21. It is hard to stop sides when they're like that.
"They work hard for each other as well, we found that in the game we played at Ganmain. They're a hard working side and there's not many holes in them."
The Lions will also have a few key outs with coach Sam Martyn (quad) joining forwards Riley Corbett (quad) and George Alexander (ankle) on the sidelines.
"You can't be a one trick pony. You have to be able to win games a few different ways," Martyn said.
"We've been presented with a few challenges during the year and most of the time we've found a way to get over the line, whether it's kicking a big score or locking it down.
"I watched a bit of Wagga's game over Coolamon and they played well, they've had some solid victories," Martyn said.
"When a young team gets some confidence with a couple of results that can be enough for them sometimes to get their tails up."
The Lions can guarantee themselves top spot and the first week off in finals should they account for the Tigers, Griffith and Coolamon in their remaining three regular season matches.
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