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Helter swelter

Canterbury United Pride 2
Auckland Football 3
after extra time

National Women’s League Final
Sunday 10 December 2017
English Park, Christchurch

A sweltering Canterbury day for the end of the 2017 National Women’s League. The nor’wester blew down the park and would give a small advantage to whichever team had it at their backs.

With warm weather in Wellington during the week, I had jokingly suggested it was like a Christchurch summer—but when I arrived in Christchurch, it was higher level of heat. The artificial turf at English Park would have added to the temperature.

This was the Pride’s fifth consecutive Final, while Auckland hadn’t qualified for the playoffs since 2012. Pride were hosts by finishing top of the single-round league. Auckland finished second and played Southern United the previous week (winning 3-1) to earn the right to participate in the occasion.

There was a noisy crowd at English Park supporting the home team. I’m told it could be well heard on the Sky TV coverage, being picked up by the effects microphones.

Auckland were without the suspended Nicole Mettam on the field. Megan Robertson, Ally Toilala, Liz Anton, and Kate Carlton took up the defensive duties for them. Anton often playing in front of the other 3.

Canterbury were without Aimee Phillips and Meikayla Moore (trialling at an overseas club). Annie Gilchrist came into the right-of-centre in the backline with Rebecca Lake in the middle and Chloe Jones on the left. Cody Taylor partnered Mel Cameron up-front.

The Pride’s defence needed some time to adjust and were missing Moore’s organisational capability and international experience. Auckland were pushing their possession wide on the left with Carlton, but when it was fed through to their forwards early on, they were having trouble getting meaningful shots away.

Pride were doing better at closing down Auckland than when I saw Auckland earlier this season—when Central gave them too much time on the ball. The Pride were also putting in some stern physical challenges, with Whitney Hepburn and Lake making some crunching, well-timed tackles.

In the 44th minute, Annalie Longo had a fierce shot blocked and the ball went for a corner. From that corner, the ball popped out to Longo who powered a shot into the net to give the Pride a 1-0 lead. There was still enough stoppage time for Auckland to mount an attack and a push on Tayla O’Brien saw Auckland awarded a penalty. Steph Skilton took the shot. Vic Esson dived low to her right to save the ball onto the post and collect the rebound, ensuring the Pride held the 1-0 lead at half-time.

I thought during the break that Auckland would try to make statement at the start of the second half and that they would press relentlessly in the first ten minutes, attempting to score a couple of goals; then relax a bit and make the Pride do the running in the heat.

Auckland sure shot out of the blocks apace, and scored in the first two minutes. Grace Jale was adjudged to have put the ball across the goal line despite the scrambling of the Pride defence and gave the visitors an early equaliser.

Jale was involved in another talking point of the half in a late challenge on Jones which left the Pride defender writhing in pain and Jale facing a card the shade of yellow rather than the red demanded by the Pride supporters. Fortunately, there appeared to be no lasting damage, and Jones will have time to recover from her bruising with this being the final game of the year.

Britney-Lee Nicholson came on as a sub for the Pride right on the 90th minute and in stoppage time tried an audacious shot which curled just wide of the post.

In extra-time, O’Brien had a shot with the wind behind her and Esson again saved via the post.

Hepburn gave the Pride the lead at the end of the first half of extra time, when she used her chest to force the ball into the net from corner.

The possibility that this becomes a two-round league in 2018-19 will help players such as Mel Cameron, who had a chance in extra time to score for the Pride (which would have put them 3-1 up) but put her shot straight at Nadia Olla in goal for Auckland after an excellent turn. Against a Mainland Premier League team such as Waimak or Universities, Cameron would have picked out her spot to place it and score for Coastal Spirit from that position. But at this level, she isn’t used to the lack of time and space to be able to do that. With more games at that level, Cameron’s goalscoring instincts and reflexes would develop and she would become a better player for it. Many other players throughout the League could also benefit from such and extended run of matches at this higher level.

In the last seven minutes of the match, a long clearance from Olla (and the Pride failing to deal with a cross) saw Hannah Blake head the equaliser at the far-post. Five minutes later, a Pride goal-kick went straight to an Auckland player and it was eventually worked to Britney Cunningham-Lee (who was a sub at halftime in extra time) to score to win the match and gain a hold of the trophy.

The scenes at the final whistle with Auckland winning 3-2 were the contrast of emotions one expects, but were amplified with the Canterbury United Pride players all immediately dropping to the ground in exhaustion having given their all on this sizzling-hot day, while Auckland still had the adrenaline burst of two late goals and were celebrating.

Other perspectives

Categories: NZ Women's National League

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Phil Clayton

Phil Clayton's feet are registered with Brooklyn Northern United but—despite having moved back to Wellington from Christchurch in 2011—his heart is still bonded with Coastal Spirit FC.

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