Previewing the (Expanded!) 2018 National Women’s League

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New Zealand Football’s trying a little harder these days with the women’s side of things. Giving the Kate Sheppard Cup a name was a good move, as was the decision to expand the National Women’s League into a two-round competition. Doubling the games in round robin stage. You could even argue that a competition which has been around in various incarnations since 2002 is only now finally getting taken seriously by those in charge. About time, as they say.

Last season, for example, they went straight to the semis after each team had played six games. Once against each other team, either home or away. Not exactly a fair cop, not when poor old Central had their home field advantage ruined by the fact that their three home games were against Southern, Auckland and Canterbury – the three playoff teams. They actually did pretty well in those three, scoring seven times, but they lost two of them and then struggled on the road, scoring just once and conceding nine in three games. They finished last, unsurprisingly.

But two full rounds you get an even representation of where everyone’s at. You also a lot more competitive football at the highest domestic level in this country, our best locally-based players given the opportunity to continue the journey in a competition which actually makes sense now. There’s still plenty of room to grow, the fact that at this stage we might only get a single game professionally broadcast is a pretty massive annoyance, to be honest, there’s no reason why NZF can’t get in on the live stream buzz. Certainly every club should at least have an active social media presence in this day and age. You’ll never grow the comp if it’s played behind closed curtains. But we’re slowly getting there, s’pose.  

Auckland return as defending champs after triumphing in a thriller down in Canterbury in the grand final last year. Goals for Annalie Longo and Grace Jale had things tied at the end of ninety and Whitney Hepburn’s extra time goal for Canterbury had the Pride seemingly on their way to consecutive titles. However Hannah Blake’s equaliser with five minutes left and then Britney Cunningham-Lee’s winner in the 119th minute ensured that Auckland won their first championship since the 2009 season in a comp they once used to dominate.

Auckland had only made the semis at all thanks to Jacqui Hand’s dramatic injury time winner over Northern in their final game of the regular season, but they were too good for Southern in the preliminary final and then caused that upset in the grand final.

The Aucklanders are always going to be a threat and with a high number of returning players they’ll have their eyes set on repeating as champs. Grace Jale is back with the team after trialling with Sparta Prague following her U20 World Cup efforts and will be a key player. Obviously there’s Steph Cleave too (nee Skilton), a regular Football Ferns squad member and a former striker who has made the transition to defence in the last year or so, she’ll be captaining this lot again. Tessa Leong’s got proven goal-scoring quality at this level. Grand final hero Cunningham-Lee’s back at it too and she’ll have some serious competition on the wing from the returning Paige Satchell, who missed the last NWL season with injury but proved at the U20 WC that she sure hasn’t lost her rapid pace, not even close.

Also repping Auckland Football at that U20 World Cup were Nadia Ola, Sarah Morton, Lizzie Anton, and Nicole Mettam so you already know this lot is stacked. Plus don’t ignore NRFL Women’s Premier Division golden boot Jade Parris either, one of several Eastern Suburbs players to make Tracy Wrigley’s squad. Granted, one big loss will be Jacqui Hand, who is over in the States at Colorado College at the mo’.

Canterbury Pride’s revenge quest is a little trickier than it might’ve been in recent years, with the likes of Aimee Phillips and Meikayla Moore graduating to professional contracts overseas. Still they do have the brilliance of Annalie Longo to call upon. A player with buckets of international experience and quite possibly the most talented player in this league at the moment. Goalie Victoria Esson should also be as good as anyone else out there in her position and Gabrielle Rennie, who is a good bet to feature at the U17 World Cup in November, is primed get the opportunity to make a few strides and score a few goals. Macey Fraser and Whitney Hepburn bring a bit of youth and excitement to the middle of the park. It’s a strong squad and you’re always silly to underestimate the development pool in the Mainland region. The Pride are also doing this with a new coach as Alana Gunn takes over for the departed Mike DeBono.

That’s not as much transition as Capital are dealing with though. Emma Evans’ squad has just eight returning players from last time. Sarah Gregorius is one of those players and there’s no doubt that she’ll have a lot to do with whether Capital can do a little better than fifth place this time. Ah but tell you what, one of Capital’s new signings is easily the biggest pick up of the 2018 season with Anna Green heading back to Aotearoa after her stint in the English Super League with Reading FC. Having accrued more than half a hundred of Ferns caps and also played professionally in Australia and Germany, this is a massive get for Capital – who also have the benefit of a returning manager, Emma Evans about to embark on her third campaign with the team. She’s the only manager from 2017 still with the same club, incredibly.

The surprise package of 2017 was Southern who turned around a terrible term in 2016 where they lost all six games with a goal difference of -21, conceding an average of five goals per game. But a late winner from Renee Bacon got them off to a perfect start with a 3-2 win over Auckland in week one. It was their first win in the NWL for four years and they went on to make the semis. It was an outstanding effort, way beyond expectations of continuing cellar-dwellarship. In particular they had the genuine excellence of league MVP Eleanor Isaac and Elise Mamanu-Gray, the latter earning a Footy Ferns call-up as reward. Isaac was only here on a working holiday from her native England and ended up as the MVP, which is crazy. Neither were named in the initial 20-woman squad but EMG was definitely in coach Paul Riley’s initial plans.

Yeah… about that. Repeating the dose will be hard for Southern and it’ll be even harder if they have to do so with a new midfield. So what they really would’ve preferred would be not doing it with a new coach in place too. However despite the success of 2017, the club and Terry Parle weren’t able to come to terms on a new deal so Ignacio Sande is calling the shots these days. Parle wanted travel and accommodation costs covered for a few players, one of them being EMG, but the club reckoned they couldn’t afford it and each went their separate ways.

Having said that, it won’t be all chop and change because a huge chunk, roughly half the team, are coming in from the Dunedin Technical side that just won the Kate Sheppard Cup. That includes influential folks like Mikaela Hunt, Shontelle Smith, Lara Wall and Coral Seath. In a season with relatively tiny preparation time, that existing familiarity could be crucial.

WaiBOP are a team that could finish anywhere on the ladder. They were a playoff side in 2016 but only won once in 2017, their defence letting them down as they conceded three goals per game on average (although weirdly they kept two clean sheets at the same time). Kelli Brown represented them at the league opening, she was a standby player for the U20 World Cup, but they haven’t yet publically confirmed their squad. Assuming that U20 WC defenders Michaela Foster and Tiana Hill will be there. Keeper Georgia Candy is another real up and comer. Kim Maguire, Ella Golding and Leanna Ryan were all useful players in 2017. The BOPers are yet another team coming in with a new coaching team too, Michael Mayne replacing Barry Gardiner.

The biggest problem for WaiBOP might not be who they sign and who they lose but where they have to play. Getting suitable home venues wasn’t the easiest and thus they’re having to play two of their games, against Southern and Central, away from home. They play Central twice in three days on the Labour Weekend Double Header Week (yes, there’s one of those) both at Massey Uni. Which is a really nice ground but… hmmm. Four homers and eight away games is going to be a disadvantage for anyone let alone a team that finished sixth on the ladder last time.

Speaking of Central, nobody scored fewer goals in 2017 and that’s pretty much why they ended up last with just three points from six games. Without being too harsh, this is probably the team most stretched for players and the early expectations are probably for them and WaiBOP to be scrapping it out for the wooden spoon. But there are some bright sparks in here. Mikaela Boxall is an international at futsal level and scored in bundles for Massey during the club season. Best not sleep on Rose Morton either. Central are hitting this thing up with Donald Piper as their new head coach.

Which leaves one last team to cover: the revamped Northern Lights team. New logo, new colours, fresh new look. But plenty of familiar faces gonna be around to try and hype it up after Northern missed out on the semis last time because of their head to head record with Southern, despite having a better goal difference. It was particularly rough since they played them down in Dunedin and only lost 2-1, just be glad it’s a two-round season this time.

Anyway, every year it seems there’s a team from Auckland’s North Shore in the Kate Sheppard Cup final. That’s because there is. Between Glenfield Rovers and Forrest Hill Milford there’s been a NFF presence in the last six of them – including two finals where the two went head to head. There was also a strong Northern presence in the U20 WC squad and having won the NWL in 2011, 2012 and 2015 this team should have high hopes for adding a fourth title to the tally. They’re the other squad yet to confirm their squad but Jane Barnett was there at media day and Malia Steinmetz has already done some promo so lock those two in. Chances are you’ll see names like Sam Tawharu, Anna Leat and Claudia Bunge too (just at a guess). Plus they’ve poached defending champion manager Gemma Lewis from across town and she’ll be a massive help. This is a young team but a hugely capable team.

Games begin this weekend – this very weekend! – with Southern vs Central, WaiBOP vs Auckland and Canterbury vs Capital, old mates Northern getting the week one bye. Games roll through until December and then, on the weekend of the 15-16th Dec, there’s a straight grand final between the two highest placed finishers in the league season. No more preliminary final. That’s cool, that puts more emphasis on the expanded league season as should be the case. Every game matters. Fingers crossed teams keep up the live stream thing (again, it’d be nice if NZF set it up properly but that might be too much progressive thinking at once) but get on down to your local and watch a few games live if you’re in town. The NWL is bigger and better than ever, now’s the time to hitch a ride on the bandwagon.

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