We’re now only three days away from the 2018 Kate Sheppard Cup final, and I’m pretty darned excited. For the first time ever, a team from the deep south will be contesting the finale of the country’s premier women’s knockout tournament.
Dunedin Technical will no doubt be the underdog up against 2016 champions Forrest Hill Milford United but, just quietly, down this end of the country we’re pretty used to getting tagged with that label.
On the international sporting stage, New Zealanders often take great pride in our small nation punching well above our weight. Well, I can confirm that this David vs Goliath mentality gets condensed even further when our region’s best go up against our big cousins from the north.
Technical’s path to the final this season has certainly not been a fluke. In fact, it’s been a gradual but steady progress that the club has made over the last few years that has seen them wind up here.
After developing into an unbeatable juggernaut in the local Premier League, next came the challenge of knocking off the best from the Mainland Federation. They achieved that last year, earning a cup semi-final spot for the first time. The team fought bravely in going down to the star-studded Glenfield Rovers, who went on to win an epic final. But in talking to both coach Graeme Smaill and captain Coral Seath recently, it was clear that the approach to last year’s semi-final was to dig in and hope for a bit of luck (they weren’t helped by a number of injuries and player unavailabilities).
This year is different though. After a summer which saw a number of the squad involved with a Southern United squad that surprised everyone in claiming a first-ever National Women’s League playoff spot, confidence has skyrocketed.
“After such a strong campaign for Southern United last year, we’ve come up against a lot of these top players before and now we are really looking forward to it”, Seath told me a week out from Sunday’s final. “The belief in our team is so different to last year – everyone thinks we can do it and we’ve got so much support behind us.”
Seath felt her team’s come-from-behind semi-final win against an in-form Wellington United in the capital consolidated that confidence.
“I think beating a Wellington team this year helped prove that belief as well. Beating a North Island team shows that we can compete with anyone.”
Beating them in the North Island was also another little confidence booster ahead of Sunday’s final. Technical may have won the New Zealand Football coin toss to be considered the “home” team for the final, but the team has a round trip of more than 2,000km to endure from Dunedin to QBE Stadium – “away” team FHMU’s home base is less than 10km down the road from the venue.
There will be a small but noisy band of Tech supporters travelling up for the final, sparing no small expense given they only had a couple of weeks notice to find flights and accommodation. But for those that can’t make it to Auckland, it’s brilliant that the final is once again being broadcast live on Sky Sports.
Most of the Technical squad have never played a match which has been broadcast live. For a moment, put yourself in their shoes – that’s bound to add a degree of nerves to proceedings. While chatting to Coral Seath however, she also highlighted a potentially positive spin on this too.
“Yeah, the girls are a bit nervous because it will be the first time on TV for a lot of us, but it’s also a great chance for the young girls to get in the spotlight and get noticed by New Zealand Football.”
It’s no secret that to have a shot at playing international football for the Ferns, being in “the shop window” in Auckland is a huge help. Players down here can often feel incredibly isolated and out-of-view of the selectors. So you can be guaranteed that there will be players really out to prove a point.
There’s one other massive motivator for the entire squad – it’s head coach Graeme Smaill’s final match in charge of the team before stepping down.
Smaill has had eight years at the helm, and a number of the squad have been a part of the squad that entire time.
“The fact that it’s Graeme’s last year is a huge driver for us”, said Seath. “Graeme has done so much hard work for so many years, so to get to the final is such a huge credit to him and what he has put in for the girls.”
“We’ve already done him so proud by getting into the final, but then to win it – well, like he said you couldn’t write a script any better.”
It would be a bit of a fairytale finish. I felt like I didn’t want to miss out on being part of the occasion, so I’ll be at QBE Stadium on Sunday. It will feel a little bit weird cheering for a club which is historically a bitter rival of my own Roslyn Wakari AFC, but these loyalties can be cast aside, for a day at least. I’ll convince myself that I’m just doing that most honourable Kiwi thing, and rooting for the underdog. I invite any “neutrals” attending the final to do the same!
Photos by Dr Yomcat Shoots: https://www.facebook.com/yomcatshoots/
Categories: NZ Women's KO Cup