December 7, 2023

The Pacific Games Day 1: Raining, and raining goals

Day 1 one of the men’s football tournament in Samoa saw five matches completed and no less than 40 goals scored.

Guest writer Richard Ewart is in Samoa for the Pacific Games, commentating on the football matches, and he gives his thoughts on the first day of men’s action.

Day one of the men’s football tournament in Samoa saw five matches completed and no less than 40 goals scored.

By: Richard Ewart in Samoa.

“What do we do now boys?” The Tuvalu squad must have pondered during their half time team talk. (Photo credit: Richard Ewart)

We thought the avalanche would begin when American Samoa took on one of the pre-tournament favourites, New Caledonia, but it didn’t turn out that way. As the team from Pago Pago took to the field it was a joy to see their two most famous players back on board, with goalkeeper Nicky Salapu captaining, and Jaiyah Saelua, lacing up her boots once again for the first time in a long time.

And between them, the stars of the Next Goal Wins documentary, and their new young teammates, kept the French side largely at bay. Salapu did what he always does and made great saves, Jaiyah took no prisoners, and the referee thought about a yellow card. In the end New Caledonia won 5-0 – comfortable enough, but by no means the blowout many would have expected.

NIcky Salapu did his best, as always, but couldn’t stop an American Samoa defeat to New Caledonia (Photo credit: FFS Media)

The Solomon Islands took to the field under new coach and two-time World Cup finalist, Wim Rijsbergen, from the Netherlands. But absent was one of their star players, Micah Lea’alafa, who didn’t make the trip from Auckland, and the rising star Raphael Lea’i, who is at school in Wellington. Opponents Tuvalu were making their return to the Games after missing Port Moresby in 2015, but fresh from their experience of the CONIFA World Cup in England last year. It took ten minutes for the Solomons to click into gear and from that point on their opponents had no answer. By half time the men in the Brazil-coloured shirts were 10-0 ahead, and even after taking their foot off the gas in the second half, the Solomons ran out winners by 13 goals to nil, with Fiji-based Gagame Feni scoring five. Might things have been different had Tuvalu grabbed their chance at 0-0? Of course not, but it would have given them a brief moment in the sun.

For competition, we were looking to Fiji led by A-League Player of the Season and India bound Roy Krishna, up against the redoubtable five times champions Tahiti. It was a curious game, played at a steady pace and without any real bite from either team. Fiji grabbed the lead midway through the opening half, with Samuela Drudru spotting a gap at the near post and squeezing his shot into the net from a tight angle. Fiji doubled their lead with a penalty after 50 minutes, with Krishna converting. From there Fiji looked to play out the game without any real alarms, until substitute Francois Mu rifled one in for Tahiti with five minutes left. The old Fiji might’ve panicked, but under their French coach, Christophe Gamel, cool heads prevailed, Krishna led from the front, job done.

The Solomon Islands beat Tuvalu 13-0 (Photo credit: FFS Media)

And then another downpour and another flood of goals, as New Zealand’s Under 23 team – most of whom are barely 21 – equalled Solomon Islands effort with a 13-0 win over a bedraggled and disorganised Tonga team. The young Oly-Whites skipper Logan Rogerson, already capped at senior level, scored five and there were hat tricks for Lachie McIsaac and substitute Jake Porter. And what are the chances? Playing at number seven for New Zealand, Ollie Whyte!

The final match of the round proved to be the best with host nation Samoa taking on PNG under lights, and more rain. No caution from the Kapuls who flew out of the blocks, and were a goal up inside a minute, Kofu Kepo, heading home Raymond Gunemba’s corner. We braced for another avalanche, but despite PNG playing at 100 kilometres an hour, Samoa under their astute captain Andrew Setefano rode their luck and kept their opponents at bay. Not until the 53rd minute did PNG find a second, Gunemba taking advantage of a defensive howler. Four goals in the last fifteen minutes from Kepo and Gunemba again, Dabinyaba, and substitute Ati Kepo, might suggest the Samoans ran out of gas, but in truth it was their persistent attacking and desire for a goal, that created the space for PNG at the other end. A sumptuous free kick from Andrew Mobberley would have brought the house down if it hadn’t brought the best out of PNG keeper Ronald Warisan.

The hosts lost to Papua New Guinea in their opener. (Photo credit: Richard Ewart)

So what have we learnt from day one?

Clearly New Zealand, Solomon Islands and PNG know where the net is, but which one of those teams will fire against stiffer opposition?

Fiji despite all the dramas pre-tournament with player bans, look solid, well organized, and in Roy Krishna have a leader and a match-winner. Tahiti having lost to the Fijians are already playing catch up. Remember this a round-robin competition, with the group winners playing off for gold – no knock out matches, no chance of sneaking through in second place and recovering later in the tournament from a bad start.

Of the minnows in the draw, American Samoa look in a good shape to record a win when they take on Tuvalu in round three, but next we have the delicious prospect of Jaiyah taking on Roy Krishna! Tonga are going to struggle. They looked unfit, although the man with the biggest weight problem, Hema Polovili, has some smarts and was their best player. But I would back the hosts Samoa to beat the Tongans when they meet in round three.

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