Oceania to test talent in bid for FWWC spot

The Group B opening encounter between PNG and Tahiti will be crucial for both sides. Photo: Shane Wenzlick / www.phototek.nz
The Group B opening encounter between PNG and Tahiti will be crucial for both sides. Photo: Shane Wenzlick / www.phototek.nz

Nine teams from across Oceania will put themselves to the ultimate test when the 12th edition of the OFC Women’s Nations Cup gets underway in Suva, Fiji this week.

With New Zealand having automatically qualified as co-hosts of the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023, the opportunity for a second Oceania nation to earn tickets to the world’s biggest women’s sporting event has seen an unprecedented amount of investment in the women’s game.

Earlier this year Tahiti played their first internationals against opponents from outside the Oceania region when they took on Andorra and Luxembourg. Fiji, Tonga and Vanuatu each spent up to a month in Australia with the former playing local clubs sides as well as the Philippines national women’s team as part of their preparations.

Papua New Guinea also ventured in the Asian Football Confederation, taking out the Tri-Nations Series in Singapore with wins over their host and fellow invitees the Seychelles.

The winner of this month’s OFC Women’s Nations Cup set to qualify for a spot in the Play-Off Tournament for the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023, to be played in New Zealand, making the stakes as high as they come for the nine nations hoping to make their mark in New Zealand’s absence.

In advance of Polynesian neighbours Tonga and Samoa kicking things off on Wednesday at HFC Bank Stadium (formerly known as ANZ Stadium) in Suva, Pasifika Sisters has put together a short preview of each of the three groups.

Group A – Tonga, Cook Islands, Samoa

Group A sees three Polynesian nations going head-to-head for a place in the knockout round of the competition. In pure OFC Women’s Nations Cup encounters not one of these sides holds an outright advantage over the other. Tonga and Samoa have never met in this competition, but Tonga has a record of a win and a draw with Cook Islands. Cook Islands, meanwhile, has never beaten Samoa.

However, if you were include head-to-heads at the Pacific Games, Cook Islands has beaten both Tonga and Samoa in their lone encounters. While Samoa has a two win, one draw advantage over Tonga.

In terms of preparations, Tonga is certainly the more disadvantaged of the three nations having had both COVID-19 lockdowns and a devastating volcanic eruption to deal with in early 2022. But with the in-country arrival of head coach Connie Selby, the side were finally able to get their boots on and return to high-intensity action during a month-long stint in Australia. The trip allowed the side to work through tactics, cohesiveness and match fitness. The difference between their 16-0 result in the first friendly against the Philippines, albeit with next to no post-travel recovery time after a delayed flight, and the 5-0 of the second shows the side are capable quickly adapting to their opponent. However the nature of the OFC Women’s Nations Cup doesn’t allow for do-overs so Tonga will need to bring their A-game from day one.

Samoa have had disadvantages of their own with coach Paul Ifill yet to set foot in the island nation following his appointment as head coach in February last year. Although that has proven less of a challenge than it might have in the past with Ifill able to call on a wide diaspora across Australia and New Zealand in particular.

Among those expected to make a significant impact are professional footballer Monique Fischer, who played with Cardiff Met and Yeovil Town before landing with Swiss side Lugano FFC, and former New Zealand youth international Jayda Stewart.

Fischer debuted for Samoa in 2015 at the Pacific Games before leaving the region to chase the European dream, so her return to international football is somewhat of a coup for Ifill and his team. Stewart meanwhile, was a member of the history-making New Zealand U-17 squad which finished third at the 2018 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup. Stewart has also turned out for Māori Football Aotearoa, playing a key role in last year’s inaugural North vs. South encounter.

Ifill has run several New Zealand-based camps over the past 12 months in an effort to instil his philosophy in the players while also nurturing the relationship between the players.

Cook Islands are probably the biggest unknown of the group but past performances indicate they shouldn’t be ruled out of contention too early. Former Papua New Guinea women’s coach, Australian Gary Phillips, is at the reigns of this squad which combines locally-based and expat players.

The majority of the New Zealand-based contingent play for Manukau United, including Tayla Hetherington and Teretia Teinaki, adding to the side’s cohesiveness. A number of players have hung up their boots since the 2018 edition of this competition allowing Phillips to refresh the squad, while also being able to rely on veterans Liz Harmon and Tupou Brogan to bring an element of experience.

Group B – Papua New Guinea, Tahiti, Vanuatu

In Group B, five Pacific Games gold medals and a string of runners-up finishes in the OFC Women’s Nations Cup mean Papua New Guinea will be among the favourites when it comes to this competition.

Former Samoa coach Nicola Demaine has overseen one of the Papua New Guinea women’s team’s most consistent preparation campaigns to date. They’ve worked with High Performance Sport PNG on fitness, speed, agility, strength and conditioning as well as covering how to identify, and cope with, mental pressure.

The side is experienced. Goalkeeper Fidelma Watpore is a former Golden Glove winner while Faith Kasiray has a FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup and a Youth Olympic Games campaign under her belt. Attackers Meagen Gunemba and Marie Kaipu have 19 goals between them from two previous Nations Cup campaigns, while Sandra Birum, Ramona Padio and captain Yvonne Gabong have no issues finding the back of the net either. Lucy Maino, Margret Joseph and Lavinia Hola are solid defenders, and Demaine has worked hard developing the those with younger squad members with fewer caps, but equal determination to retain Papua New Guinea’s moniker as the ‘Queens of the Pacific’.

Tahiti have been consistent in their chase for results on the regional stage since the women’s football programme was restarted under current head coach and FTF women’s development officer, Stéphanie Spielmann. The investment in the elite programme is almost unmatched in the region, outside of New Zealand, with Spielmann boasting a strong staff that includes a strength & conditioning coach and physio.

The side trains regularly at home, and have been able to call on several France and USA-based players to bolster the squad and who have spent a significant period in Tahiti as part of the build-up to the Women’s Nations Cup.

Mariko Izal (J. Villenavaise), who first appeared for Tahiti at the 2011 Pacific Games, leads the France-based contingent which includes Kiani Wong (RC Lens), Ranihei Nui (Montpellier HSC, Vahuariki Tufaunui (Toulouse FC), and Camille Andre (RC Strasbourg).

Closer to home the sides which regularly finish in the top of the domestic table, Dragon, Tefana and Pirae, are well represented in the squad which includes several familiar faces from previous regional competitions such as Babou Tepea, Kohai Mai, Tetia Mose and Tahia Temarii.

One aspect which may prove a disadvantage for this well-drilled Tahiti side is the lack of 90 minute matches. The 2021-22 senior women’s season saw the league switch to 11-a-side from nine-a-side the previous season, and the top flight featured just four teams playing a total of 10 games.

Vanuatu have struggled to build on the success they enjoyed when they hosted, and won, the 2017 Pacific Mini Games. They didn’t qualify for the 2018 edition despite wins over American Samoa and Solomon Islands, after going down to Fiji and they’ve only appeared at one other edition, in 2010.

Vanuatu’s best result against Papua New Guinea was a 2-2 draw at the 2003 Pacific Games, while they were also able to hold Tahiti to a scoreless draw in the 2019 edition.

Despite the challenge of an irregular national domestic competition and a patchy elite programme, Vanuatu can boast a dedicated base of players always at the ready to turn out for the national team.

Rita Solomon has been a consistent performer for both club and country, and will again have to be at her best to lead her side against nations which, on paper, are more experienced. Annie Rose Gere is adept at finding the back of the net having done so at both the Pacific Games and in Women’s Nations Cup Qualifying, while Elma Aiviji, Brenda Anis and Jane Alatoa will also have to come ready with their experience.

Group C – Fiji, New Caledonia, Solomon Islands

After an impressive run to the final in 2018, Fiji have all but cemented their status as favourites in Group C. Former coach Marika Rodu did wonders with his side shaping the players winning mentality. They are now under the watch of American Lisa Cole, who led Papua New Guinea at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in 2016, who has been building on those tactical and technical foundations Rodu instilled during his era in charge.

Fiji isn’t short of strike power with Cema Nasau, Trina Davis, Sofi Diyalowai and Luisa Tamanitoakula all more than capable of scoring multiple goals a game. Defensively, the side boasts strength and talent which combined with Cole’s background in goalkeeping, should ensure they’ll be solid at the back.

New Caledonia are a dark horse when it comes to this year’s competition. On paper the squad is littered with talented, experienced young players and while it’s a very different line up to that which featured at home in 2018, they shouldn’t be written off.

Marielle Haocas is back in the squad following her hiatus post-2015 Pacific Games and doesn’t look to have lost much of her impressive form after an impressive 2019 campaign. Also back on the national stage is Alice Wenessia who impressed in the youth tournaments before taking a break from the game to focus on motherhood. She’s been on fire for AS Academy Feminine, playing alongside the likes of Jackie Pahoa and learning from New Caledonia’s most experienced striker, Christelle Wahnawe.

Led by Michel Berbeche, a member of the FCF staff, the squad is shaped heavily by the federation’s own development programme with close to half the squad currently ensconced with, or former graduates of, FCF Académie.

Solomon Islands have been under the guidance of former international Batram Suri since 2021 and he’s slowly been building a squad he expects will challenge for a place in the knockout round of the competition.

The launch of the Women’s Premier League shows the commitment of the federation to the women’s programme, and contributed to strong development across the board. This development is reflected in the make-up of Suri’s squad which draws from six different domestic clubs. Missing from the squad is talismanic captain Laydah Samani, as she focuses on off-field pursuits, but the side has Ileen Pegi and Jemina David to pick up some of the attacking slack. RSIPF Royals have been the team to beat domestically, so their goalkeeper Margaret Kofela certainly adds certainty to the defensive line-up.

The competition kicks off with the Group A encounter between Tonga and Samoa on Wednesday 13 July at 7pm, with all matches streamed live on the Eleven Sports platform.

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