The two most recent National Women’s League champions, Canterbury United Pride and Northern, have signalled their intention to be among the glory-hunters again while Southern United have proven just how determined they are to rid themselves of the wooden spoon in the opening round of action this weekend.
In the season opener on Saturday, defending champions Canterbury began their bid for a fourth title in five years in promising fashion with a 4-1 win over WaiBOP while 2015 winners Northern also notched a high-scoring victory a day later, sweeping aside Central 5-1. Both those results went the way of the favourites but that was far from the case in Dunedin this afternoon as Southern – who failed to win a match in the whole of last season – put in an outstanding performance to shock a star-studded Auckland line-up 3-2.
Clearly inspired by the chance to play at the world-class Forsyth Barr Stadium and roared on by a 400-strong crowd, Southern began brightly in an attempt to banish the memories of 2016 and earned reward for that endeavour by taking the lead just past the half hour. Shontelle Smith had already had more than one sight of goal from a pair of well-directed free kicks that nearly went in and would not be denied a third time, keeping her cool from the penalty spot to smash Southern into a surprise lead.
The hosts took that advantage into the break but found themselves back on level terms when twice-capped Football Ferns forward Stephanie Skilton underlined her quality with a classy finish past a helpless Tessa Nicol in the Southern goal. But the home crowd was soon sent into raptures again on the hour when the lead was restored with a looping effort from Eleanor Isaac.
Southern then had another claim for a penalty when Isaac went down in the box and would’ve wished that it was awarded when Auckland equalised again in the 69th minute, this time through a Jacqui Hand volley from a corner.
But, remarkably, the home side got their noses in front yet again when Renee Bacon delivered an outstanding strike on the turn with just over five minutes remaining to make it 3-2. Southern weren’t about to give up their advantage for a third time and clung on to record their first victory in more than four years.
“I was really pleased with the grit, determination and absolute fantastic attitude of the girls,” said coach Terry Parle, whose first ever match in the Southern dugout proved hugely memorable.
“All our messaging has been about one thing – belief. We’ve said that if they believe in their ability and work with the processes then the results will come. And that’s what we’ve had today.”
Auckland counterpart Gemma Lewis was disappointed to have started with a loss but was full of praise for the efforts of Southern.
“It was a really exciting game and both teams played some amazing football at times,” she said. “It didn’t surprise us too much to be honest because we’ve had battles with Southern for the past few years. They showed character to keep coming back into it but also some great football as well.”
A bit further north in Christchurch, the Pride had their Football Ferns contingent largely to thank for their win over WaiBOP, who were beaten by runners-up Capital in the preliminary final last year. Having been part of the national team’s recent two-match tour of the USA, Meikayla Moore, Annalie Longo and Aimee Phillips all found the net on their return to domestic action, the latter hitting a brace to become the competition’s highest currently-active scorer.
Moore got the opener just past the half-hour mark but it was a short-lived lead as Sarah Krystman equalised just seven minutes later. That proved no more than a consolation in the end though as Phillips struck twice in 15 minutes at the start of the second half before captain Longo wrapped up a pleasing afternoon for the hosts at English Park with another goal deep into injury time.
“It was nice to get the campaign off to a winning start, especially at home in front of our supporters and sponsors,” Longo said. “The Ferns that came back into the squad were absolutely fantastic but it was a team performance. We’ve got a bye next weekend so have a bit of time to do some work and it’s nice to finally have a full squad back together training as we didn’t have that in pre-season.”
WaiBOP coach Barry Gardiner was not too disheartened by the performance and felt there were some promising signs.
“We’re disappointed at the result obviously but I think there were elements of our play that were good,” he said. “We did well out of possession at times but could have been better in possession. There’s stuff to work on but we’re proud of the players because it’s a really good team we’ve played against. Most teams will have problems down here against them.”
Having looked on as Canterbury laid down the gauntlet, Northern knew they would need to respond with a dominant display of their own today and delivered just that on the football turf at QBE Stadium. Making the most of a strong wind behind their backs, Hayley Stirling’s side raced into a three-goal lead within the first half hour as Jane Barnett haunted her former team by scoring twice either side of a Dayna Stevens strike.
Central gave a far better account of themselves in the second spell and earned a glimmer of hope when Meisha Boone got them on the scoreboard in the 71st minute. But a late double from Sam Tawharu made sure there would be no dramatic comeback by the visitors.
“It’s been a tough pre-season with players coming in and out of the environment so to get them on the field and performing like that was pretty pleasing,” said Stirling. “From the Central sides I’ve seen in the last three years, this was probably the best one in terms of being able to play and having a plan – they could be a team to watch.”
Central coach Simon Lees admitted the conditions did not make it easy for his charges but was delighted with their response to Northern’s early onslaught.
“It was pretty tough in that first half and the wind was a bit of a factor,” he said. “We gave Jane a couple of clear chances and she’s a really clinical finisher – we know that better than most. So our plan didn’t quite go as we hoped but the second half was a lot better and I was really pleased with that.”
National Women’s League Round One
Canterbury United Pride 4 (Meikayla Moore 32’, Aimee Phillips 45’, 60’, Annalie Longo 90’ + 4’)
WaiBOP 1 (Sarah Krystman 39’)
Northern 5 (Dayna Stevens 24’, Jane Barnett 11’, 28’, Sam Tawharu 81’, 89’)
Central 1 (Meisha Boone 71’)
Southern United 3 (Shontelle Smith pen 32’, Eleanor Isaac 60’, Renee Bacon 84’)
Auckland 2 (Stephanie Skilton 49’, Jacqui Hand 69’)
BYE – Capital