Although the Clash of the Cultures between the Cook Islands U-16 national development team and Nga Whanapoikiri Taiohi Kotiro ended in a nil-all draw, the return of international football to the Oceania region alongside the cultural significance of an exchange between the two has ensured all the participants have come away winners.
The touring side showed little sign of the fatigue expected of a side going into their fourth game in five days, putting in a gutsy, well-oiled performance while also contending with some trying, but typically Auckland, weather conditions.
The Cook Islands went into the encounter with a three from three record after opening the tour with a 6-0 win over Papakura City, followed by a 5-0 win over Central United. Thursday’s match against Fencibles United was a much tighter affair which the visitors won 2-1, but the performance left a lot to be desired according to coach Tupou Brogan-Patia.
The pinnacle of the tour was taking on Māori Football Aotearoa’s U-15 girls’ and Brogan-Patia said having seen what her side was capable of in their opening two encounters she expected to see a much better performance from them on Friday afternoon.
Māori Football Aotearoa’s side hadn’t played any significant matches as a full squad since its naming following January’s North vs. South, but following an intensive three-day camp under coach Kieran Mischewski, there were high spirits and a strong desire to get out on the pitch.
The two sides proved an incredibly even match, with the majority of the action happening in the middle of the park. Both sides had opportunities throughout the encounter, however they failed to capitalise on them.
Brogan-Patia said it was great to close out the week with a strong performance against a strong opponent.
“Today was the hardest team we’ve encountered all week. There was a lot of pressure but I think it’s good because it teaches us to keep our head in the game, to learn to have confidence on the ball,” she said.
“Preparing for it we expected them to come harder, which is what I was hoping, so that was a good outcome. Going forward, I think we are capable of placing in an OFC tournament so we will keep building towards next year’s U-17 competition. We’re going to go back and train hard, improve on the things we need to, like having confidence on the ball and playing back or the way we face, but structure-wise we’re looking good.”
For Mishewski, the match was an excellent opportunity for the players to test themselves against a strong international opponent.
“The team played the way we’re trying to encourage them to play, that we’ve been working on all week and in previous camps before this, and that’s a really free, connective style of play where they get to move the ball and dictate it, the want the ball and they enjoy it because that’s what they love doing, having the ball at their feet,” Mishweski said.
“We want to play a way where that ball is at our feet a lot and we’re moving it around, controlling and dictating the game and I think that’s what they managed to do. We had a lot of possession, they moved it around and held onto it.”
Both sides assembled squads which represented a cross section of the entire national community, with Cook Islands drawing in players from further afield than just Rarotonga and Māori Football Aotearoa representative of different communities up and down Aotearoa.
“This is a group of players from right across the country so from Alexandra to Kerikeri and they all play different styles, with different clubs and different philosophies so bringing them together and having them play something completely different again has been the challenge,” Mishewski explained.
“We’ve spent a lot of time building the team and creating a culture, a special culture, which they probably haven’t seen before and is unique to this environment and through that everything leads into the way we want to play and the style we want to play which is unique to Maori football. That freedom, that movement and playing the way that culture lives. They embrace that and they have joined together. The haka plays a big part in that, they come together and perform the haka and everything builds off that.”
Brogan-Patia said the trip has been an opportunity to bring the different personalities together and create a sense of solidarity among the players.
“We have players from outer islands and it was hard to bring the team together initially as they didn’t really talk. Training was really quiet,” she said.
“But coming here, the bond they developed I really saw it in the first game and it really surprised me. They started talking which they’d never done in training, so I’m happy everything has come together from all the training we’ve done since February. It shows it is possible.”
Brogan-Patia said a big thank you has to go to the CIFA President Lee Harmon, and General Secretary Mii Piri-Savage, for arranging the trip and allowing our request to have the two teams travel to New Zealand.
“We are so thankful that we could come here and be exposed to the level of football in New Zealand and it will definitely help our players back in Rarotonga, to set the standards and the level based on the football in New Zealand.”