Kiwis sail through Oceania

New Zealand asserted their Oceania dominance in the most emphatic fashion to secure passage to the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament London 2012. The Football Ferns are now hoping that the one-sided nature of their play-off victory against Papua New Guinea is a portent of things to come in London.

The New Zealanders made their Olympic Games debut four years ago at Beijing 2008 where they were eliminated at the group stage, although a draw earned against Japan proved a stepping-stone, being their first point at a senior world tournament. To qualify for Beijing the Kiwis were forced to rely on two second-half goals to edge Papua New Guinea in the play-off. This time New Zealand were 15-0 victors on aggregate and, based on the Football Ferns international results in recent years, it seems the disparity in scorelines is a reflection of their growth rather than regression by their continental counterparts.

A world away
The road to London for Oceania hopefuls began last month in Tonga’s capital Nuku’alofa, a typical Polynesian setting whose palms trees and relaxed pace could not be any further removed from that of the ultimate destination on the other side of the globe. The abbreviated four-nation tournament featured Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Vanuatu and hosts Tonga.

Ultimately it was a familiar face in Papua New Guinea who triumphed to earn a meeting with New Zealand, but there were small victories too for Tonga who made the final, and Vanuatu who won their maiden international match. For PNG it was perhaps an expected victory with the Melanesians possessing a strong continental record, which includes previous title wins at the Pacific Games.

Dominant from outset
Any doubts about New Zealand being stretched as they were four years ago in the oppressive Port Moresby weather were quickly dispelled, and the tie was virtually over by half-time in the opening leg last Saturday. New Zealand, undoubtedly helped by playing on home turf, albeit the unfamiliar surrounds of Whangarei hosting its maiden international fixture, were four goals to the good by the interval. Tall striker Amber Hearn and attacking starlet Rosie White profited most, bagging two goals apiece as the score blew out to 8-0.

New Zealand maintained their focus in Wednesday’s return leg, despite the sapping mid-afternoon heat in Port Moresby. Again, it proved a one-way contest with New Zealand 7-0 victors as six different names found their way onto the scoresheet, with Sarah Gregorius securing a brace. “The conditions were tough but they kept pushing until the end,” said New Zealand coach Tony Readings. “I don’t think we could’ve got anything more out of the squad over the two matches. The players are never satisfied and are looking to improve with every game.”

The gulf between Oceania's two leading teams compared to four years ago is clear, and Readings, appointed following John Herdman’s departure to take the Canada national team position, believes the fact that many of his squad are now in overseas competition has been a hugely significant factor in their own collective growth. In 2010, only two members of the squad plied their trade overseas, while virtually the entire starting side are now enjoying football life in the likes of Germany, Sweden and USA.

The challenge will be to build upon the solid showing at the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup™ and turn that into results at London 2012. “We know that since the start of the year we’ve done all that we can,” said Readings. “We’ve gone to the USA and put in two fantastic performances against the world number one, gone through the Cyprus Cup unbeaten, then done everything that was asked of us in these two games. We’re really happy with ourselves and we’re confident that we’ve shown that we will be more than competitive at the Olympics.”