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Football Ferns All But Confirm Final Olympics Spot
by Jeremy Ruane
New Zealand's Football Ferns all but confirmed the last spot in the women's draw for the 2012 Olympic Women's Football Tournament would be theirs at Toll Stadium on March 31 when overpowering Papua New Guinea 8-0 in the first leg of the OFC Olympic Women's Qualifying Play-off in Whangarei.

The second leg, at the Port Moresby Rugby League Stadium in four days time, will be all but academic in terms of the outcome, because while the beaten side provided some resistance, they were really no match for a New Zealand side which had the luxury of bringing on Hayley Moorwood at half-time to become her country's most capped footballer, male or female, on the world stage.

Her 75 caps eclipses Ivan Vicelich's tally of 74 for the All Whites, and came on a day another milestone was established by the Football Ferns - their 350th goal on the international stage, about which more later.

The Football Ferns tore into their task from the outset, with Amber Hearn volleying over the bar just fifty seconds into the match, after Ria Percival and Rebecca Smith had combined on the right.

Five minutes later, they opened the scoring. Kirsty Yallop and Sarah Gregorius worked a short corner routine which culminated in the former pinging a cross to the far post, where white-shirted team-mates were queuing up to open the scoring. In the end, it was the Whangarei-born players who were involved, Abby Erceg setting up Hannah Wilkinson for a tap-in.

Three minutes later, Smith and Percival combined with Annalie Longo, with the last-mentioned, after Percival's cross had been blocked, heading the ball through to Wilkinson. She touched it to Hearn, who executed the perfect air-shot, before recovering to set up Wilkinson for a shot which Papuan 'keeper Linda Bunaga parried.

Aida Gerota cleared the danger, but the relief was brief, for within seconds, Longo lashed a thirty yarder narrowly past the post.

The Football Ferns doubled their lead on the quarter hour in straight-forward fashion. Yallop's corner wasn't cleared, and Smith hooked the ball home high into the net - a rare goal for the captain, twenty-four hours after she'd stepped off the plane from Germany.

Cue a raft of missed chances for the natives, as they went all-out to wrap up their qualification for London in style. Bunaga plucked the ball off Hearn's head after Percival and Longo had worked a slick one-two on the right, seconds before Ali Riley and Gregorius linked on the left, the latter's cross culminating in Wilkinson skying her shot as Bunaga closed her down in the nineteenth minute.

Four minutes later, Longo weaved her way through two on the right before crossing beyond the far post to reward the late-arriving Yallop. Gerota blocked her header, and Bunaga pounced on the rebound before an opponent could turn it home.

Katie Hoyle's super ball changed the angle of the Football Ferns' attack in the 26th minute, and released Riley into acres of space on the left. Into the penalty area she careered, but her bid to add to her solitary goal on the international stage went begging when Gerota, whom she'd initially raced past, recovered to thwart the threat, much to the fullback's frustration.

The Football Ferns were playing all the football - they would have had approximately 90% of possession in the match - but struggled at times to maintain the intensity of their display against opponents who emerged as the best team from the island nations following two separate play-off series.

And in tandem with their wavering intensity came a lack of polish with their finishing. Erceg played in Riley in the 32nd minute, but Bunaga this time dealt with the danger she posed, while the 'keeper needed two attempts to keep out a stinging twenty yarder from Gregorius seconds later.

The striker had the ball in the net in the 34th minute, but Gregorius' celebrations were cut short by a raised flag, the ball having crossed the dead-ball line before Riley could pull it back after racing down the left to create the opening.

Unperturbed, Riley continued to torment the Papuans, beating two before crossing for Hearn and Wilkinson, who, throughout the match, tended to make the same runs, thus got in each other's way more often than was desirable. It happened on this occasion, and another chance went begging.

Wilkinson and Percival worked a right flank opening in the 38th minute which culminated in Hearn lifting the ball over both Bunaga and bar, but the striker poised to succeed Wendy Sharpe as New Zealand's most prolific markswoman on the world stage didn't have long to wait until she edged closer to that 29-goal milestone.

Before Hearn could celebrate, however, Gregorius was the centre of attention in the 39th minute. Wilkinson won the ball on the right and picked out Yallop with a cross. Her drive was well parried by Bunaga, but Gregorius was following in and turned the ball over the line before Kathrina Salaiau could hook it back into play.

Hearn's 43rd minute strike was a sumptuous twenty-five yarder which beat Bunaga all ends up. The striker won the ball, evaded a challenge and promptly let fly - 4-0 - and linked with Longo to set up Wilkinson for the final chance of the half on the stroke of half-time, one which the local lass fired narrowly past the far post.

It took the Football Ferns all of 32 seconds to threaten Papua New Guinea's goal in the second half. Straight from the kick-off, Percival powered down the right before whipping in a cross. Gregorius left it for Yallop, arriving in behind her, and the midfielder's curling shot brought the best out of Bunaga, who dived to her left to save.
Hayley Moorwood, pictured around 75 caps ago in April 2003 in Canberra ... the kid's done good!

Hannah Wilkinson - hometown heroine

Rosie White - yet another "Golazo"!!

Rebecca Smith - goalscorer

Jenny Bindon - untroubled throughtout

Ria Percival - buried a beauty

Amber Hearn - closing in on history
Ninety seconds later, Moorwood and Hearn combined for Gregorius' benefit, but Salaiau intervened, much to the disappointment of the 2,243 fans present, who were eager to see their heroines hand out a hiding to their opponents.

As were the players themselves. A string of opportunities soon followed. Gregorius and Hearn were unable to do justice to a teasing Riley cross which deceived Bunaga in the 50th minute, while the 'keeper blocked a Gregorius drive with her legs seconds later, after Riley, Yallop, Wilkinson and Moorwood had combined to prise open PNG's defence.

Wilkinson headed over and Hearn fired narrowly wide in the next couple of minutes, following the fine work of Riley down the left, while the fleet-footed fullback dashed down the left to the byline in the 58th minute and picked out a cross which Hearn, whose call had been heeded by Gregorius, headed inches past the same upright.

Cue Rosie White, "The Golazo Girl" herself, who came on for Gregorius and, with her first touch, maintained her penchant for scoring against Papua New Guinea in spectacular fashion in the 64th minute.

Smith and Riley combined to set her up, and White launched into a full-length diving header which she sent soaring into the top corner of the net from eight yards - yet another addition to her growing catalogue of great goals!

Two minutes later, White went in where angels fear to tread in her efforts to score the Football Ferns' sixth goal in the match. Wilkinson and Gerota contested the ball in the air, and as the ball dropped, White stooped to conquer as Salaiau looked to clear.

Bunaga picked up the pieces, and parried a drive from White in the seventieth minute, after the substitute had evaded the offside trap. Hearn, following in, inexplicably hit the post with the goal at her mercy.

Papua New Guinea's relief was short-lived, however. No sooner had they cleared the ball then it was heading back towards their goal, Hearn leading the charge as she looked to make amends for her miss.

The striker's cross picked out White, whose no-look flick deceived Bunaga. The 'keeper recovered to kick the ball off the line - why she didn't fall on it only she will know - but succeeded only in gifting possession to Percival, who wasted little time in burying the ball in the bottom far corner of the net - 6-0.

Given she had been on a plane from Wolfsburg just over twenty-four hours beforehand, Smith could perhaps be excused for her 74th minute lapse in concentration, which allowed Esther Muta to strip her of possession and head towards goal.

Erceg and Moorwood were swiftly on the scene to spare their captain's blushes, although Jenny Bindon would surely have appreciated the chance to get involved in the game - she didn't even have a shot to save throughout the match, a measure of the Football Ferns' dominance.

Their ultimate measure, of course, was on the scoreboard, and this was one aspect of their game in which New Zealand's national women's team have to improve - their finishing was nowhere near as clinical nor as ruthless as was desired.

And their use of the ball at times frustrated. There was a lack of precision evident in the Football Ferns' play on occasions, and such are the standards this team have set themselves, as they've worked towards recording results such as being within minutes of scoring a win over the USA on their patch, that against opponents of lesser standing, they should be far more incisive and accurate with the plethora of possession they enjoy.

The Football Ferns' failings in front of goal continued in the 76th minute, with Hearn's curling twenty yarder inches past the post. Percival, who supplied the cross for that chance, then received the ball from Smith a minute later and pinged in a cross to the far post, where substitute Betsy Hassett directed a diving header wide of the upright.

Eight minutes from time, Hoyle, Smith and Percival combined to present White with a chance which, after she had evaded a challenge, was smothered by Bunaga. But the 'keeper was afforded no chance by the youngster in the 89th minute, White having the honour of notching New Zealand's 350th goal in international women's football.

It was a straight-forward goal, too. Smith spotted White roaming unmarked near the edge of the PNG penalty area, and duly picked her out with a made-to-measure pass which the substitute took in her stride before deftly lobbing the stranded figure of Bunaga - 7-0.

Within ninety seconds, they had scored again. Wilkinson won the ball on the right, and Percival took over possession and played the ball into White's stride. The striker's shot on the turn was parried by Bunaga, and this time Hearn, following in, made no mistake.

Wilkinson, who scored the game's first goal, should have scored the last soon after, but bottled a glorious chance when through one-on-one with just Bunaga to beat. But the 8-0 mauling of their Oceania rivals on home turf has afforded Football Ferns' coach Tony Readings the chance to test out a few combinations in the second leg, their spot in the April 24 draw at Wembley for the 2012 Olympic Women's Football Tournament all but assured.

Football Ferns:     Bindon; Percival, Smith, Erceg, Riley; Longo (Moorwood, 46), Hoyle, Hearn, Yallop (Hassett, 56); Wilkinson, Gregorius (White, 62)
Papua New Guinea:     Bunaga; Gerota, Salaiau (booked, 75), Honeakii, Norie; Morris (Birum, 58), Siniu, Winas, E. Muta (Tsuga, 84), B. Muta; Rama (Kaikas, 26)
Referee:          Rakesh Varman (Fiji)

London 2012