The focus in the women’s game has recently been on international action with the Football Ferns taking on the world’s best team on a two-match tour of the United States. But attention will turn back to the domestic scene this weekend as the National Women’s League kicks off.
The highest form of female football in this country, the competition returns with three intriguing match-ups as six of the seven teams get their bid for national supremacy underway.
The reigning champions, Canterbury United Pride, launch their title defence at home to WaiBOP while Northern, the side Canterbury succeeded as trophy holders, also begin on their own patch as Central head up to the big smoke. The other fixture will open a new chapter in the great north-vs-south sporting rivalry as Auckland make the long trip to Dunedin to take on Southern United while last year’s runners-up, Capital, must wait another week as they have a bye in the opening round.
There will be a plethora of top-class talent on show with senior Football Ferns and youth internationals sprinkled liberally throughout the respective squads, which is likely to result in an even competition and present Canterbury with a fight on their hands to retain the crown.
The Pride have carved out a reputation as the league’s benchmark team after winning three of the last four titles so are likely to have a target on their backs.
“I think everyone definitely wants to beat us but, for us, nothing changes,” captain Annalie Longo says. “We want to set our standards high – it’s all about developing, performing on game day and making sure we give our players the best opportunity to make those New Zealand squads.”
Canterbury have a strong Football Ferns flavour with Longo – who brought up 100 appearances for her country on the USA tour – joined in Mike De Bono’s line-up by international team mates Victoria Esson, Meikayla Moore and Aimee Phillips while Macey Fraser was named best player at the recent OFC Youth Futsal Women’s Tournament.
There is also plenty of international experience in the north, where the respective squads of 2015 winners Northern and Auckland are packed full of stars who have worn the silver fern at both senior and age-group level.
After claiming the title two years ago, Northern looked on course to repeat that feat last season before a dramatic final day of round-robin action saw them drop out of the play-off picture. A group that includes a host of players either currently or previously involved in the Football Ferns set up – namely Liz Savage, Anna Leat, Kate Loye, Malia Steinmetz and Jane Barnett – will surely be among Canterbury’s main challengers.
“I think every year it gets harder, especially at that top end,” coach Hayley Stirling says. “There’s more teams competing now for those top three spots and it makes for an exciting league because it will be unpredictable. We’re pretty confident we can go places.”
Former heavyweights Auckland dominated the domestic scene for much of the early 2000s but have now not won a national title for eight years and are determined to bring about a return to those glory days under the guidance of Gemma Lewis, who starred for Wales and Chelsea in her playing days.
The main feature of Auckland’s squad is a healthy contingent of members of the FFDP, New Zealand’s Football’s innovative player development programme. Nadia Olla, Liz Anton, Grace Jale, Nicole Mettam, Jacqui Hand and Tayla O’Brien are all among that number while twice-capped Football Fern Stephanie Skilton returns from university in the United States.
The striker is set to wear her home federation colours for the first time since Auckland’s 2012 grand final loss to Northern and will also skipper the side.
“I’m really excited to be back amongst the Auckland culture and playing for my local team,” she says. “We definitely want to make the finals this year and have consistent performances week-in and week-out, as well as building a team culture.”
Another high-profile forward appearing for her home town again is Sarah Gregorius, whose partnership up front with Upper Hutt City team mate Emma Main is likely to cause havoc for Capital, who are looking to go one better after suffering disappointment in last year’s final. Gregorius retired from the Football Ferns in 2016 after amassing over 80 caps and – along with goalkeeper Cushla Lichtwark and captain Katie Barrott – will look to pass on her experience to a promising batch of youngsters that includes youth internationals Maya Hahn, Maggie Jenkins and Serena Murrihy.
“It’s pleasing to see such talent coming through in the region,” coach Emma Evans says. “We look forward to building on the success we saw in 2016 and believe the professionalism and team culture already shown by the squad will put us in good stead for this year’s campaign.”
A returning Football Fern will likewise be at the heart of WaiBOP’s campaign with Sarah McLaughlin, whose career has been massively disrupted by injury, taking part in the National Women’s League for the first time since 2011.
“I’m looking forward to getting back on the field after a decent amount of time off football at this level,” she says. “It will be good to be able to showcase the talent we have and test our abilities against some of the other federations.”
Other notable names in the WaiBOP ranks include former U-17 national team captain Michaela Foster – the daughter of All Blacks assistant coach Ian – and Grace Wisnewski, who recently starred in New Zealand’s triumphant campaign at the OFC Youth Futsal Women’s Tournament.
Central are able to include the skipper of that side, Tilly James, as well as her senior Futsal Ferns team mate Hannah Robert. The Morton sisters, Sarah and Rose, are also likely to feature strongly, as is fellow youth international Amber Phillips.
“The goal is to build on the performances of the team over the past few years,” coach Simon Lees says. “Most of the players have now had experience playing at this level and know what it’s about. It’s time for Central to be part of the play-offs again and really show the depth of talent in our region.”
At the foot of the country, Southern United are taking a professional approach as they look to get rid of the wooden spoon they were left with last season.
“We’re off to a better start than we have been previously,” defender Coral Seath says. “We’ve started training four times a week and I think that’s a huge head start for us.”
Southern will not be able to use a poor surface as an excuse this Sunday with their clash against Auckland set to take place at the immaculate Forsyth Barr Stadium.
“I’ve played in the stadium once before and it’s a beautiful pitch with lots of space. Hopefully, we can utilise that but I know Auckland will be looking to do the same so it’s a bit of an unknown really,” Seath says.
For the full 2017 National Women’s League draw please click here
2017 National Women’s League squads
Capital Football: Cushla Lichtwark, Natasha Ingram, Serena Murrihy, Tessa McPherson, Rosie Wild, Libby Boobyer, Katie Barrott, Carolyn O’Reilly, Ellen Fibbes, Ella Wilson, Emma Lavery, Maya Hahn, Emily Stotter, Kennedy Bryant, Maggie Jenkins, Bex Jefferies, Asha Strom, Lena De Ronde, Sarah Gregorius, Emma Main, Michaela Robertson, Jade Morrissey, Francesca Grange, Klara Gronevik
Coach: Emma Evans
Northern Football: Anna Leat, Claudia Bunge, Bernadette Goulding , Shayden Cathro, Stacey Martin, Hannah Mackay-Wright, Dayna Stevens, Trudy Sandle, Kate Loye, Jess Oulaghan, Liz Savage, Arabella Maynard, Cara Lonergan , Vegas McCaroll, Aneka Mittendorff, Milly McWhirter, Malia Steinmetz, Sam Tawharu, Catherine Pretty, Anya Gross, Jane Barnett, Saskia Vosper, Casey Klyn, Emily Couchman
Coach: Hayley Stirling
Auckland Football: Nadia Olla, Kate Carlton, Amy Waters, Ally Toailoa, Georgia Martin, Liz Anton, Megan Robertson, Erinna Wong, Georgia Brown, Grace Jale, Nicole Mettam, Hannah Blake, Margot Ramsay, Lily Taitimu, Emily Gillion, Stephanie Skilton, Jacqui Hand, Tayla O’Brien, Britney Cunningham-Lee, Kathryn Gow, Lily Dowsett, Maxine Rawnsley, Maisy Dewell, Brooke Wylie
Coach: Gemma Lewis
WaiBOP Football: Georgia Candy, Toni Power, Kate Williams, Hannah Reid, Michaela Foster, Leanna Ryan, Emma Cawte, Sarah Krystman, Helen Talbot, Ella Golding, Kat Robinson, Leah Gubb, Tiana Hill, Georgia Nixon, Grace Cox, Kelli Brown, Kim Maguire, Sarah McLaughlin, Grace Wisnewski, Chelsea Elliott, Amanda Wilshier, Danaya McKenzie, Angelique Tui Samoa, Eileish Hayes
Coach: Barry Gardiner
Central Football: Courtney Norman, Sarah Morton, Molly Woodhead, Leah Gallie, Emma Crewe, Amber Phillips, Rose Morton, Meisha Boone, Aleesha Heywood, Aniela Jensen, Tilly James, Kate Watson, Chantelle Lebon, Jenna Barry, Hannah Robert, Mackenzie Barry, Sophie Crewe, Georgia Barnett, Ella James, Aoife Gallagher-Forbes, Anna Hinton, Aimee Atkins, Evealyn Newman, Brooke Bennett
Coach: Simon Lees
Canterbury United Pride: Victoria Esson, Emma Clarke, Rebecca Lake, Arna Roberts, Meikayla Moore, Chloe Jones, Aimee Phillips, Tahlia Herman-Watt, Mel Cameron, Annalie Longo, Britneylee Nicholson, Gabrielle Rennie, Whitney Hepburn, Mikayla Weiblitz, Annabel Gilchrist, Jayda Stewart, Cody Taylor, Rebecca Gillet, Beth Elliot, Macey Fraser, Briar Guyan, Una Foyle, Marisa Van Der Meer, Sophie Williams
Coach: Mike De Bono
Southern United: Tessa Nicol, Sophie Dijkstra, Mikaela Hunt, Kelsey Kennard, Kirsty Hayr, Emily Morison, Renee Bacon, Zoe Thomas, Shontelle Smith, Aynsley Martin, Coral Seath, Eleanor Isaac, Elise Mamanu-Gray, Lara Wall, Olivia de Ronde, Morgan Whitson, Sophie Aitken, Mikayla Gray, Holly Johnstone, Eva Zellekens, Katie Foulkes, Samantha Baldwin, Samantha Richards, Laura Wallis
Coach: Terry Parle