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Gianni Be Good

We’re approaching the end of the ISPS Handa Premiership season and, to the surprise of practically no-one, the Wellington Phoenix Reserves side is propping up the foot of the national league table.

The much maligned Weenix have picked up just a solitary win from their 16 matches, along with three draws, leaving them eight points adrift of their nearest rivals on the ladder.

Now in their fifth season competing in the national league, their existence in the competition has always occupied a bit of a weird void. As the reserves for the senior A League Phoenix side, the team provides game time for fringe first-teamers, but the bulk of the squad is generally youngsters with dreams of professional contracts with the senior squad.

In their five seasons, the Weenix have never seriously threatened a playoff spot. That may not be such a bad thing, given the fact that they’re not actually eligible for a semi-finals spot even if they did finish in the top 4 – such is the unusual nature of the side’s inclusion in our national league, which also includes limits on the number of professionally contracted players that can drop down to the reserves each week.

So it’s no surprise that the team cops a bit of flack from some corners questioning their place in the league. But after watching the team earn a 2-2 draw with an in-form Southern United side in their last match, I reckon there might be a place for them in this competition – because there’s plenty of talent coming through.

One of the most impressive players in that match was defensive midfielder Gianni Stensness, who only recently turned 20. It’s no surprise that he’s the latest Weenix player to get called up to the senior squad, a chance of making his A League debut in Gosford tonight against Central Coast Mariners.

Gianni Stensness tracks Abdulla Al-Kalisy (photo Adam Binns Photography)

Coincidentally, the Australian-born Stensness played for the Mariners National Youth League side last year, before making the move over to Wellington at the start of this season on a scholarship contract. As he also holds a NZ passport, he’s already been involved in our national U20 setup.

At 6’1″ tall, Stensness is an imposing figure. Against Southern United he made a number of crunching tackles and dominated the aerial battles in the middle of the park. He showed calm on the ball and a clever knack for finding space, whether dropping deep to receive the ball or surging forward into a goalscoring position. 

He scored the opening goal for the Weenix with a header –

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him capable of also slotting into the backline – although he’d want to cut out the concentration lapses which saw him caught in possession a couple of times – something likely to be quickly punished at A League level.

Stensness certainly wasn’t the only youngster to impress. Fellow midfielders Willem Ebbinge and Sam Sutton were busy and confident in possession. Ben Waine, still just 17 years old, seems to have really kicked on this season and has bagged six goals. Defender Boyd Curry was excellent too.

19-year-old Callan Elliott showed glimpses of his ability – he’s already on a professional contract with the Phoenix, and his time will surely come. After a breakout season with Tasman United last year, he surprisingly hasn’t managed to find the net this season in his 14 Weenix appearances.

Even 18-year-old goalkeeper Zac Jones, whose scuffed pass led to Conor McDonald’s opening goal, didn’t let that mistake change his gameplan which was based around quick and short distribution.

In fact, that kind of sums up the greatest strengths and weaknesses of the Weenix. They are clearly well-drilled in a short passing and high-pressing philosophy, and seem to have been given a complete licence to stick to their style regardless of the scoreline – which has led to a few blowouts.

With Southern United reduced to 10 men for most of the second half and the visitors dominating possession, they probably should have kicked on and found a winner.

But with matches against Hamilton Wanderers and Hawke’s Bay United to wrap up their season, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the Weenix managed to claim another win.

And I also wouldn’t be surprised to see a couple of this current Weenix crop kick-on to the senior team in the coming seasons. Just two years ago, a team of talented youngsters travelled to Dunedin and played Southern United off the park under the roof at Forsyth Barr Stadium. The Weenix side featured the likes of Matt Ridenton, Dylan Fox, James McGarry, and Logan Rogerson. The real star of the show pulling all the strings that day? A 17-year-old attacking midfielder called Sarpreet Singh.

The Youtube stream of the full Southern United vs Wellington Phoenix Reserves match is below. Keep an eye on Gianni Stensness – #6 for the Weenix (white shirts), in the bright orange boots. Watch for tomorrow morning’s live stream of Southern United hosting Hawke’s Bay United from Sunnyvale, from 11am.

Categories: NZ Men's National League

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