Guest writer Richard Ewart is in Samoa for the Pacific Games, commentating on the football matches. Here are his thoughts on the final day!
Sense prevailed on the last day of the Pacific Games in Apia, and the Women’s Gold medal match, featuring the four-time defending champions Papua New Guinea and new kids on the block Samoa, was promoted to the main stadium in front of the TV cameras.
By: Richard Ewart in Samoa.
For 28 minutes PNG kept knocking at the Samoan door, but the host nation showed plenty of grit to keep a faster and more skilful team at bay. The breakthrough came from Marie Kaipu, her team’s heroine from four years ago. Then as now, she found a way to score in a gold medal match, some neat footwork taking her past the last defender and keeper Ronisa Lipi was beaten low to her left.
PNG were on a roll at last, and looked hungry for more goals, but they were stopped in their tracks when Samoa finally mustered the energy to mount an attack Their leading goal scorer Torijan Lyne-Lewis rammed the ball home while the PNG defence dithered. 1-1 and at last the host nation had some momentum.
But PNG are not four-time gold medal winners for nothing! And Marie Kaipu confirmed she’s a player for the big occasion, scoring her team’s second on 42 minutes. Again it took some fancy footwork from the number 11 to make the goal happen. But the truth is the Samoan defence went AWOL, and the ball should never have reached her in the first place.
Samoa started the second half with more energy and Lyne-Lewis fired in a shot from long range, but it didn’t trouble Fidelma Watpore in goal. And the fire soon fizzled out for the team in all blue, as PNG clicked back into gear. Once again the champions kept hammering on the door, but Samoa, despite carrying two injured players, wouldn’t buckle.
Not until the 92nd minute did PNG seal the win, with the tournament’s top scorer Ramona Padio taking her total to nine with a shot from what seemed like an impossible angle. Keeper Lipi left a chink of light at her near post, and Padio was good enough to take full advantage.
So PNG maintains their perfect record – Suva, Apia, Noumea, Port Moresby and Apia again. Five gold medals in a row, it’s a remarkable achievement by any standards.
Ahead of the men’s final, New Caledonia had the last three golds in the bag, and they came into this gold medal match with a clean sheet – not one goal conceded in five pool matches. The young pretenders from NZ had only shipped one goal themselves, against Samoa, but they had looked less than convincing against Vanuatu and PNG.
Again we witnessed a cagey opening, but it was New Caledonia who dominated first-half possession without taking advantage. The big number 9 for Les Cagous, Jean Philip Saiko, had scored in all his games up to the final, but his touch deserted him this time, and Connor Tracey dealt comfortably with everything that came his way. At the other end, Rocky Nyikeine was more than comfortable, as a far from adventurous NZ team failed to muster a single worthwhile goal attempt.
So all square at the break, but New Caledonia firmly on top, and their pressure finally told in the 55th minutes, when Richard Sele fired off a left-foot shot that Tracey allowed to slip through of his grasp into the net. The Kiwi keeper was crestfallen as New Caledonia celebrated.
For the next thirty minutes, New Caledonia pressed and pressed, as they looked to put the game to the bed, while without wishing to be unkind, the young NZ team looked clueless. They posed no attacking threat at all. But then with just four minutes to go, a clumsy challenge on the edge of the box handed the Kiwis a free-kick, and captain Dane Schnell was first to rise, and head the ball past a stunned Nyikeine.
It was a goal completely out of the blue, but NZ were fired up at last, as penalty kicks loomed. But then Seth Clark raced on to a long clearance down the right flank, and was allowed to continue despite looking offside by some distance. I suspect the French defenders thought so too, and they seemed to freeze as the cross came in and sub Jorge Akers fired in a shot that Bearune did well to head off the line and over his own crossbar.
But from the corner, the ball cannoned off the shin of big number 5 Billy Jones and into the net. No-one looked more surprised than Jones himself, but the young All Whites had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. No need for a shoot out and New Caledonia’s golden reign was over. In the end, NZ deserved the gold medal because they had to find a way, and they did, and they withstood almost everything Les Cagous threw at them. But what a blow for the islands, with New Caledonia, PNG and Vanuatu all failing to topple a team made up of 21 and 22-year-olds.
In the battles for bronze, there was more disappointment for PNG in the men’s tournament. The team is good enough to have won gold, but they leave Apia empty-handed. They took the lead against Fiji through Kolu Kepo, who had scored the team’s first goal of the tournament way back on Game Day 1.
But it had to be didn’t it, Roy Krishna popping up to square the match just short of the hour mark. And that’s the way it stayed and the game went to penalties. Krishna converted his spot-kick, but Kepo missed, as did Alwin Komolong, and Fiji won the shoot-out 4-2.
And Fiji’s women’s team also went home with bronze after a comfortable 3-1 win over the Cook Islands.
Two goals for Cema Nasau and one for Luisa Tamanitoakula did the trick, with Lee Maoate-Cox scoring a consolation for the Cooks.
So what did we learn on finals day?
How can I put this? The Pacific islands teams still have an inferiority complex when they come up against NZ. The young Kiwis were well drilled, but uninspiring and certainly beatable.
PNG have been through some hard times since that famous penalty shoot out loss to the All Whites in the last OFC Nations Cup Final, and maybe the disruption cost them in Apia. Maybe they just weren’t ready.
New Caledonia are still a great team, and they know the final was there for the taking.
And what can I say about the PNG women’s team? Five golds in a row, a perfect record and still the benchmark the rest of the island teams have to aspire too.
Goodbye Apia, it’s been a blast. And thank-you Ola for allowing to share my experience with you and your followers.