The Football Ferns came within a minute of slaying the dragon that is Australia’s Matildas in front of 3,677 fans at WIN Stadium in Wollongong on June 24, having to settle for a 1-1 draw against the old enemy.
Compared to their previous twenty-two encounters against our trans-tasman rivals, that result in itself marks a significant step forward for New Zealand’s finest, who until today had been on the wrong end of the scoreline in every match between these teams since October 1994.
That’s a heck of a long time between drinks, but Amber Hearn signalled the visitors’ intentions just two minutes into this match, rattling the angle of post and crossbar with a twenty-five yarder which Matildas goalkeeper Melissa Barbieri could only watch in admiration - she was beaten all ends up as the most prolific markswoman in New Zealand’s history came within inches of netting her 31st international goal.
From that moment, Australia were rarely allowed to dominate proceedings, as they have tended to in previous encounters. Instead, it was the Olympics-bound Football Ferns team dictating terms, as they looked to add another noteworthy scalp to their collection en route to London 2012.
Caitlin Foord’s right flank forays were giving them cause for concern, however, and headers from Laura Alleway and debutant Ashley Brown - one of five newcomers the Matildas fielded over the course of this match - gave Jenny Bindon reason to get her gloves dirty inside the first half-hour.
After Alleway had snuffed out a left-flank raid just after the half-hour mark, Foord squandered Australia’s best chance of the half five minutes from time, rattling the side-netting after working a one-two with Sarah Walsh down the right.
Cue a Football Ferns counter-attack which culminated in Annalie Longo slipping Sarah Gregorius through with just Barbieri to beat, but she sliced her effort across the face of goal.
The visitors were quickly out of the blocks in the second spell, Hearn’s shot on the turn forcing Barbieri to produce an early save low to her right. It was a warning which the Matildas failed to heed, for in the fiftieth minute, the Football Ferns opened the scoring.
Hearn played a super ball wide for the overlapping Anna Green to latch onto, and her near post cross found Hayley Moorwood ghosting in to meet it with a diving header which left the veteran Barbieri flat-footed and floundering as the ball arrowed into the bottom far corner of the net.
The delighted Football Ferns stalwart was engulfed by her team-mates as the Matildas found themselves in unfamiliar territory - trailing to New Zealand on home turf, some twenty-one years after the Kiwis last prevailed on Australian soil.
Matildas coach Tom Sermanni made an instant tactical change, introducing Catherine Canulli to the fray to bolster his side’s attacking thrust. It had an immediate impact, with Foord and Stephanie Catley combining for Alanna Kennedy to thrash a shot narrowly past the post in the 64th minute.
Soon after, Canulli sent Sarah Walsh careering through on goal, but Ria Percival and Bindon combined to snuff out the danger, while the Football Ferns custodian then produced two saves from Alleway headers, the first following an Elysse Perry corner, the second a stunning one-handed denial at the near post after Catley had picked out the defender with a 77th minute cross.
The chances were coming thick and fast, at both ends. Emma Kete combined with Betsy Hassett
moments later, as the Football Ferns sought a second goal, while seven minutes from time, Barbieri narrowed the angle to deny Moorwood what would have been her fourth goal in as many matches for her country.
Canulli forced a save from Bindon before Catley denied a goal-bound effort at the other end of the ground as the game entered stoppage time, at which point the Matildas threw caution to the wind and embarked on an all-out assault on New Zealand’s goal in search of a dramatic equaliser.
Hayley Raso lashed a low drive in the 92nd minute which Bindon tipped round the post, but from Perry’s resulting corner to the far post, Thea Slatyer headed home to spare the Matildas’ blushes and leave the Football Ferns feeling as if they’d been beaten by the old enemy once more.
Instead, they had earned a 1-1 draw with Australia, New Zealand’s first result of any kind since a 2-1 triumph in Port Moresby in the OFC Women’s World Cup qualifying series in October 1994.
Given the history of this clash, coach Tony Readings was very pleased with the result. “We were great. We played really well, keeping the ball for long periods of play. We need to be adding things and improving different parts of our game leading up to the Olympics, and today’s effort was really positive on that score.
“Annalie Longo was a real handful throughout today, and kept the ball well, so much so that I can’t recall her making a stray pass. Ria Percival ran herself into the ground, while today was Rebecca Smith’s first full game back following her injury, and she was rock-solid in defence”.
Matildas coach Tom Sermanni is using these matches as preparation for a one-off clash with world champions Japan on July 11, an encounter which will be preceded by the OlyWhites’ duel with their Japanese U-23 counterparts at Tokyo’s National Stadium.
“We came into this match with limited preparation, limited experience and another vastly different squad of players. In saying that though, our girls did extremely well under pressure from a team coming off nine matches already this year and who are on their way to the Olympics.
“Five of our players were on debut today and I can say I’m very satisfied with the manner in which they played. The majority of the team we started with on the park tonight were under 20 years of age which bodes well for where we’re headed.
“Full credit to the New Zealand team who came out today with a high pressing game and came to win”, despite the absence of regular starters Ali Riley and Kirsty Yallop, who have returned to Sweden for Damallsvenskan action this weekend.
The teams resume their rivalry on Wednesday, their clash the ultimate main course for the attendees of a Women In Sport luncheon taking place at WIN Stadium. Readings will ring the changes for this encounter, as “we’ll need to have all eighteen players in the squad fit and ready for action when taking part in the Olympics”.
Matildas: Barbieri; Alleway, Slatyer, Brush (Perry, 72), Catley; Polkinghorne (Polias, 83), Kennedy (Rollason, 88), Allen (Canulli, 55); Foord, Walsh (Yeoman-Dale, 74), Brown (Raso, 65)
Football Ferns: Bindon; Percival (Patterson, 81), Smith, Erceg, Green; Moorwood (Bowen, 90), Hoyle, Hearn, Longo (Hassett, 70); Gregorius, Wilkinson (Kete, 60)
Referee: Casey Reibelt