The Football Ferns are out to book their place at the next World Cup and Olympic Games – and put a year of drama behind them. Steve Deane reports.
Drama. Crazy. Whirlwind. Those words all come up in the first couple of sentences as Football Ferns striker Rosie White sums up a year that has seen an historic move towards gender equity, a player revolt and coach sacking.
Throw in the fact that her club went bust, along with both of her feet, and it’s no wonder the now 25-year-old – who burst into the national sporting consciousness with a stunning hat-trick in the U-17 World Cup against Colombia in 2008 – was looking forward to getting out on the pitch and having some fun against Tonga on Monday afternoon.
“There have definitely been some dramas,” says White of 2018.
“It has been a bit of a crazy year for the Ferns, with lots of ups and downs. Lots of amazing things have happened with the organisation. And then, obviously, some pretty crazy things as well.”
To recap: the Ferns began the year basking in a new dawn after receiving pay and travel parity with their male All Whites counterparts. The storm clouds quickly gathered, however, following a dismal display in a friendly against Japan in June, when the Ferns served up a performance so negative and uninspiring that junior club coaches counselled their kids never to emulate the national team.
Coach Andreas Heraf – who was also the national technical director – defended the tactics by stating it was the only sensible approach for a footballing nation that never has been, and never will be, on a par with the world’s elite.
Heraf was publicly castigated for his unparalleled negativity, while privately 12 of his players lodged complaints of bullying that would ultimately be substantiated. The debacle led to Heraf’s exit – and took down much-maligned NZ Football chief executive Andy Martin in the process.
“It’s time for us to have a bit of a clean slate,” says White, in what seems a bit of an understatement heading into this week’s World Cup and Olympic qualifiers at the Oceania Women’s Nations Cup in New Caledonia.
“After the whirlwind that has been this year, it’s time to settle things down a little.”
The Ferns head into a tournament they will win comfortably unless – as one scribe put it – the entire squad succumbs to malaria – with a new coach believing that this new dawn won’t prove false.
“This feels like the real deal,” says White. “And I feel we have a really great coach in Tom Sermanni.”
A Scot who played in Britain’s lower leagues before forging a successful coaching career that has encompassed stints with the Australian, Canada and the powerhouse United States women’s teams, Sermanni is evidently familiar with the requirements of female players.
For the OWNC, he has drafted in former Football Ferns striker Wendi Henderson – a highly qualified and respected coach who has been curiously overlooked for such appointments in the past.
“Wendi has a wealth of experience and just having players as coaches is nice,” says White. “Wendi is awesome and I’m really stoked that she is involved. It is really cool to have players as coaches and it is great for us to have someone to relate to.”
The first day of last week’s training camp was devoted entirely to re-establishing a team culture that has always previously included a good balance of a fun and enjoyment – pre-Heraf, that is.
“We’d lost our way a little bit,” White says.
With World Cup and Olympic qualification on the line, the stakes are high at the ONC, but the calibre of opposition shouldn’t be overly demanding. Historically, the Ferns have run up cricket scores against the Island nations, and they aren’t expected to be tested by the likes of Tonga, the Cooks Islands and Fiji.
The lightweight opposition should have White’s eyes lighting up. With fellow strikers Hannah Wilkinson and Amber Hearn injured, White should get a good chance to add to a goal tally of 14 in 84 matches, that’s modest compared to her strike rate of 16 goals in 15 international matches at U20 level.
“You’d hope that we will score lots of goals, and I’d hope to score a few, too,” she says. “I mean, obviously, yeah we do have two key players injured at the moment and people will need to step up. I’d love to be a goal scorer and that is what I try to do in every game.”
Simply being out on the pitch will be a relief for White, after a year that began with her Boston Breakers club folding in January, and included a long stint out injured after she had pins inserted in bones in both feet after suffering recurrent stress fractures.
Having secured her U.S club career with the Chicago Red Stars, White can now look forward to an off-season in New Zealand following the OWNC.
“It has been the craziest year of my football career, definitely,” she says. “Everything that could have gone wrong did. So just being able to put all of that behind me, move forward with Chicago and move forward with the Ferns, has been a big relief.”
The Football Ferns play their first OWNC pool match against Tonga at 4.00pm on Monday.
Football Ferns’ Nations Cup squad
Goalkeepers: Vic Esson, Erin Nayler, Nadia Olla
Defenders: Liz Anton, CJ Bott, Anna Green, Meikayla Moore, Sarah Morton, Ali Riley, Rebekah Stott
Midfielders: Katie Bowen, Betsy Hassett, Grace Jale, Annalie Longo, Ria Percival, Emma Rolston, Steph Skilton, Malia Steinmetz
Forwards: Sarah Gregorius, Katie Rood, Paige Satchell, Rosie White
Oceania Women’s Nations Cup fixtures
Nov 19: Football Ferns v Tonga, 4pm
Nov 22: Football Ferns v Cook Islands, 7pm
Nov 25: Football Ferns v Fiji, 7pm
Nov 28: Semifinals
Dec 1: Final