October 1, 2023

Pacific Games Day 4: It’ll be All White on the night as Les Cagous go for four gold medals in a row

The unlucky losers on day four were Vanuatu and Tonga. By that I mean they were relegated to the second field at the Blatter Complex in Apia, where the cameras don’t go, apart from the odd naughty Facebook Live stream, which the ground announcer keeps telling everyone not to do.

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.

The unlucky losers on day four were Vanuatu and Tonga. By that I mean they were relegated to the second field at the Blatter Complex in Apia, where the cameras don’t go, apart from the odd naughty Facebook Live stream, which the ground announcer keeps telling everyone not to do.

New Caledonia
Les Cagous are into the gold medal final after a strong performance. (Photo credit: FFS Media)

By: Richard Ewart in Samoa.

The beneficiaries of this behind closed doors encounter were most certainly Tonga, who after putting up some sort of fight in the 2-0 loss to Samoa, were beaten inside ten minutes by a free-flowing Vanuatu team. After failing to find the net against either PNG or NZ, this time the goals flew in, 14 of them, with Tony Kaltack bagging five, while substitute Bill Nichols helped himself to four. Sorry to say this, but Tonga were hapless, helpless and hopeless. They have been the poorest team at the Games by some distance. Vanuatu, on the other hand, should’ve been in the shake-up for the medals, but their failure to score against PNG or NZ, despite playing some great football has cost them dearly.

My prediction before PNG and NZ met in the race for the gold medal match was that the Kapuls would win, and I’m still not sure how they didn’t! Thanks mainly to the magical powers of Raymond Gunemba, PNG created a hatful of chances, but the best they could manage was to hit the crossbar. Gunemba pulled up lame early in the first half and looked gone for all money, but he was still out there when the final whistle went and I suspect the most frustrated man on the park after seeing his teammates – notably Kolu Kepu and Jacob Sauba butcher his best work.

Nigel Dabinyaba
Nigel Dabinyaba and PNG couldn’t find the net against New Zealand (Photo credit: FFS Media)

In the end, the game hinged on another controversial refereeing decision. PNG keeper Warisan and NZ skipper Logan Rogerson both went for a cross, and when Warisan’s momentum sent him crashing into the young All White, the ball was long gone. Both players hit the floor, and Rogerson had blood pouring from a head wound, but it was an accidental collision, nothing more, except in the eyes of the referee from Tahiti who awarded a penalty. It was the New Zealanders first and only chance of the first half, and the man they named the team after, Ollie White stepped up to convert.

Into the second half and more of the same. It was PNG with all the creativity and NZ rescued only by their opponents’ inability to finish. Even a draw would’ve been good enough to keep the Kapuls on track for the gold medal match, but they just couldn’t find a way, and when inevitable gaps at the back appeared, NZ took advantage and conjured up their one and only real chance of the game from open play, and vice-captain Dane Schnell sidefooted the ball home.  So it finished 2-0 and PNG were left shaking their heads as NZ stumbled into the big dance on Saturday.

Next up the first of the Group B games, as Fiji took on Tuvalu. Once again coach Gamel made wholesale changes, once again Roy Krishna was parked on the bench. The Bula Boys looked sluggish throughout but were still good enough to take a 3-0 lead by half time. However after the break, the Fijians almost ground to a halt, and it was Tuvalu who broke away to score the next goal of the game, Sosene Vailine, the hero for the smallest team in the tournament. Another 15 minutes slipped by before Fiji finally fired up and the goals began flying in – seven of them by the end, with Roy Krishna grabbing a couple off the subs’ bench to make it 10-1 at the final whistle. Coach Gamel’s comment post-game that he was happy with the score but far from happy with the performance summed things up neatly.

Fiji Tuvalu
Tuvalu were no match for Fiji. (Photo credit: FFS Media)

In truth though it wouldn’t have mattered if Fiji had beaten Australia’s 31-goal world record, because their fate was always in others hands. They needed Tahiti to win the battle of the French territories against New Caledonia to have any hope of making the gold medal game. Fiji’s chances of getting the result they wanted looked to have increased big time, as Les Cagous took to the field without arguably their three most important players – central defender Mickael Tiaou, striker Jean Philip Saiko and skipper, Joel Wakanumune, who were all out suspended.

Much of the game played in wet and slippery conditions was an arm wrestle, creativity was at a premium and frankly, the match was painful to watch at times. The bright spot was former Oceania Player of the Year, Bertrand Kai, who captained the side in Wakanumune’s absence. And Kai it was who found a way to unlock the Tahitian defence on the half-hour mark, sliding the ball into the path of Nathaniel Hmaen, who couldn’t really miss and didn’t. The second half was a cagey as the first, but the onus was on Tahiti and their captain Teaonui Tehau missed a golden opportunity when he outpaced the New Caledonian defence and the ball sat up nicely for a volley, but so often deadly in front of goal, this time the captain fired wide. Les Cagous only needed a draw to knock Fiji out of contention, so they were happy to sit on their lead, but they finished with a flourish, scoring twice in the last five minutes through substitute Jean Christ Wajoka, and the hardworking Cesar Zeoula. However things might’ve been different if not for another refereeing blunder, with Tahiti denied the most clear cut of penalty claims, when keeper Rocky Nyikeine grabbed both of Tehaus’ legs and pulled him down in the area. No reaction at all from the referee. Astonishing.

New Caledonia 2
New Caledonia and Cesar Zeoula came out on top against Tahiti. (Photo credit: FFS Media)

Earlier in the afternoon, Solomon Islands bounced back from the controversies in their two previous games to belt American Samoa and leave themselves in with a chance of the bronze medal match if they beat Fiji in round 5. The Bonitos were actually slower to start than Fiji against Tuvalu, and American Samoa could easily have taken the lead through Ryan Samuelu. The Solomons finally found their radar on 18 minutes, Gagame Feni the scorer, and he added a second before the break, with Totori and Ifunaoa scoring one apiece to make it 4-0 at the break. The second half saw the Solomon Islands run rampant, adding nine more goals, and yet American Samoa actually didn’t play that badly. Their willingness to attack was a credit to them, and keeper Maearasia was called upon to make some smart saves. When American Samoa’s captain and keeper Nicky Salapu was forced to leave the field with an injury, 16-year-old Hengihengi Ikuvalu came on to make is international debut and produced one stunning save. In the final tally of 13 goals, Feni netted three to jump ahead of NZ’s Rogerson in the race to be the tournament’s top goal scorer, Ifunaoa scored a hat-trick too, and Andrew Abba came off the bench to score four.

So what have we learned from round four?

Beware the referees. Two more major blunders that changed the course of two games, and gave New Zealand a free ride into the gold medal match.

New Caledonia are not exactly entertainers, but they are tough, very tough, and surely will be too tough for the young Kiwis in the gold medal game.

The battle between Fiji and Solomon Islands for a place against PNG in the bronze medal match will be fascinating. Will it be Roy Krishna or Benji Totori who inspires their team to victory?

Vanuatu play great football and on another day at another tournament they would surely have been in the medal shake-up.

Tuvalu scored, and a nice goal it was too. Something to celebrate and their overall performance in the tournament surely merits admission to OFC at last.

American Samoa have played as well as I have ever seen them play. Bear in mind there were five 17-year-olds in their starting line up and eight players 19 or under, so maybe a brighter future lies ahead.

And PNG were just so frustrating! Some of the chances they missed against NZ, my granny could’ve scored, and she’s not even alive!

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