Players buzzing for big kick off

Representatives from each team with the trophy at the launch of the ISPS Handa Premiership. Photo: William Booth / www.photosport.nz

Excitement was the overriding emotion this week at QBE Stadium in Auckland when players from each of the 10 competing teams came together to officially launch another season of the country’s premier male competition, the ISPS Handa Premiership.

This season is marked by ISPS Handa – a philanthropic sports promotion society founded by Dr Haruhisa Handa – coming on board as sponsor of the national league, which complements their existing support for the Chatham Cup.

New Zealand Football CEO Andy Martin is delighted to be associated with a partner that aligns closely with the governing body’s values and spoke of his sense of anticipation for what is likely to be another thrilling campaign.

“We are very fortunate to have a great partner such as ISPS Handa for the next three years,” he said.

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“Their Chairman Dr Haruhisa Handa believes very strongly in the power of sport and has supported a number of sports in New Zealand in recent times. They believe sport has a unique ability to create hope, to break down educational and cultural barriers and to inspire people in a unique way. Football is a great fit for those values as it is a global game with massive participation across nations and cultures,” he added.

“New Zealand Football holds two strategic objectives – our elite teams winning on the world stage and more New Zealanders loving and playing football. The ISPS Handa Premiership is important because it links these two strategic goals.”

The tagline for the ISPS Handa Premiership is ‘Where All Whites are made’ and there are likely to be a host of current or former internationals taking the field after the competition kicks off on October 15 with a match between Team Wellington and Auckland City that doubles as the Charity Cup.

Four of those All Whites – Te Atawhai Hudson-Wihongi (Auckland City), Jake Butler (Waitakere United), Tim Payne (Eastern Suburbs) and Cameron Lindsay (Tasman United) – were in attendance at the official launch and were joined by representatives from all of the other teams, namely Matt Oliver (Hamilton Wanderers), Sam Mason-Smith (Hawke’s Bay United), Eric Molloy (Team Wellington), Liam Wood (Wellington Phoenix), Andreas Wilson (Canterbury United) and Conor O’Keeffe (Southern United).

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Each faced the media in a series of interviews before heading outside to the QBE Stadium outer oval for a skills challenge, in which Mason-Smith and Lindsay came in at first equal before the former took the honours back to the Bay after triumphing in a tie-breaker.

All the players spoke of their excitement at being part of the launch but it was a particularly memorable day for Hudson-Wihongi. The All Whites midfielder has been out with a serious knee injury for the best part of a year and is relishing the prospect of finally crossing the white line again.

“It’s good to be here, obviously it’s been a while since I’ve been part of any sort of football activity and to be able to be here as a player for the first time in almost a year is great,” he said.

“We’ve been together for three or four weeks now and have had a few pre-season games which has been good, everyone is getting a fair bit of minutes under their belt. We’ve got a good mix of experienced players and younger ones coming through so the squad’s looking really good.”

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Mason-Smith was ‘buzzing’ to have taken out the skills challenge and likewise can’t wait to get going with the proper action in a few weeks’ time.

“The winter season is now all done and pre-season has been going well, although the body is a bit sore from all the running,” he laughed.

“All the players have been working hard and the coaching staff have got us on a good routine. We still have some trialists and it’s all about trying things at the moment but we’ve got a plan and hopefully in the next couple of weeks with the friendlies we can implement that and then go into the season with a bit of momentum.”

As two-time defending champions, the side to beat will again be Team Wellington and the men from the capital will have a new striker looking to fire them to a three-peat after the arrival of Molloy, who scored six goals in 15 appearances for Southern United last season.

“It’s great to come up to the launch and hear from New Zealand Football about what’s happening this year – it seems very exciting,” he said.

The ISPS Handa Premiership will kick off on October 15 with the Charity Cup before the first round proper takes place on October 22-23.

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