New Zealand clubs continue to flourish in the wake of Australia’s defection from Oceania.
By Paul Moon
New Zealand maintained the stranglehold they have exerted on Oceanic club competitions ever since Australia’s defection to Asia in 2005, but this season’s tournament followed a very different pattern to the previous two, when Waitakere United twice lost the opening leg of the Final in the heat and humidity of Melanesia before proving their superiority back in west Auckland’s kinder clime.
In the latest edition, however, Auckland City hammered Koloale 7-2 in their Solomon Islands stronghold, then drew 2-2 at home a week later.
Overall, Auckland were a little flattered by the aggregate scoreline. Koloale did produce impressive patches in both encounters, but their defending was naive and, during key periods, the Kiwis dominated.
City simply outgunned the Solomon Islanders. They were able to call upon 10 players previously attached to professional outfits, whereas the Koloale amateurs’ only player with any experience outside his own country was Henry Fa’arado, who was once briefly employed by Australia’s Perth Glory.
In reality it was the concluding fixture in Group A, when City visited neighbours Waitakere, that determined who would lift the silverware.
Waitakere knew that only a win would be sufficient to give them a berth in the Final as the two rivals had the same number of points but Auckland enjoyed a superior goal difference thanks to notching 10 of the 16 goals that the section’s third side, Port Vila Sharks, had conceded.
The Kiwi showdown – which was a torrid affair with eight yellow cards and two reds – was eventually decided by two incidents.
In the 22nd minute, Waitakere lost all their fluency with the sending off of influential midfielder Neil Emblen, then, midway through the second half, City defender Matt Friel, spotting that opposition goalkeeper Danny Robinson had strayed off his line, scored a with a sublimely struck free-kick.
Two further Auckland goals, from Keryn Jordan and Adam McGeorge, quickly followed as United were caught on the counter-attack. Roy Krishna’s fine 83rd-minute solo effort served only to provide a slightly more respectable scoreline.
Group B provided an even closer finish with all three participants in contention to qualify as the last game kicked off. Both Koloale and Fiji’s Ba required a victory to advance into the Final, while a draw would have seen Papua New Guinea champions Hekari Souths United head the table.
As it transpired, Koloale’s home advantage proved decisive on this occasion and, before a vociferous 10,000 crowd, Nicholas Muri scored the solitary goal.
Hekari raised a few eyebrows during the tournament by recording victories over each of their opponents – even beating Ba away – and provided Papua New Guinea football with its brightest moments for some time, albeit due to a line-up liberally sprinkled with foreigners.
Despite being the beneficiary of one of the most generous sponsorship deals in South Pacific sport (from a petroleum company), Hekari only gained a Champions League place after their opponents in an intended qualifying tournament – the top sides from Tuvalu and Cook Islands – withdrew for financial reasons.
While their performances in the group stage this term suggest that Hekari are destined to feature prominently in future years, it remains difficult to imagine any island’s clubs seriously challenging New Zealand supremacy for a good while yet.