Booking a ticket to the 2018 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup is the main goal for New Zealand at this month’s Oceania qualifiers in Samoa but coach Leon Birnie would like to see far more from his players than simply justifying their favouritism for the regional crown.
Birnie’s side will take on Tahiti, New Caledonia and Samoa in Group A of the OFC U-16 Women’s Championship in Apia from Saturday and each player will be making their international debuts – some had never even been on a plane before jetting over the Pacific Ocean yesterday.
“It’s the first time they’ll be putting on the badge and with that comes its own unique challenges and pressures,” says Birnie, who has plenty of experience to draw upon after coaching the U-20 national team in the previous cycle.
“All players adapt to that differently so it’s our job as a staff to make sure we support them with whatever they require based on how they adapt. Leading into this, we’ve had a short preparation but the time we’ve had has been of good quality. I’m excited to see what these girls can do over there.”
Securing a spot on the global stage is the minimum requirement and Birnie is taking a far broader approach, focused mainly on individual development.
“The number one thing is to make sure we qualify and, if we put good performances on, then hopefully we’ll do that. But there will be a lot of stuff we do off the field as well to try to grow these players and get them out of their comfort zones as much as we can,” he says.
“We want to challenge them, not only on the field but off it as well. We’ll do a lot of individual work with the players and really highlight their strengths and the areas they need to work on to really help them move forward. That’s what the focus of the campaign will be.”
The aim is to produce players who can go on to star for the senior Football Ferns, who are now placed 20th in the world and are looking for an injection of even more quality over the coming years to climb the rankings further.
“In the last part of our campaign leading up to the qualifiers, there were a few players who really made it clear they are ones for the future,” Birnie says.
“I’ve only worked with them for a limited period so far but, from what I’ve seen, it’s a high-quality and exciting group. As a whole team, we look exciting going forward and that’s an area which has been highlighted that can help the Football Ferns in the future.”
While New Zealand are heavily favoured to emerge on top, Birnie is not taking any opposition lightly and is expecting his side to be tested, particularly when it comes to breaching a well-structured defensive unit.
“Some of these teams set up a bit deeper and make it quite challenging to break them down,” he says.
“But that’s really good for us and gives us some real problems to work through. It could be quite different to what the players have experienced before and their job will be to try to work through that. There will be challenges and it’s up to us to support the players as they work through them,” he adds.
“The girls are all really excited and so are the staff – we’re all ready to go.”
OFC U-16 Women’s Championship – Qualifiers for 2018 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup
(J.S. Blatter Football Complex, Apia)
Tahiti vs New Zealand
Saturday 5 August, 4pm (NZT)
New Zealand vs New Caledonia
Tuesday 8 August, 1pm (NZT)
New Zealand vs Samoa
Saturday 12 August, 4pm (NZT)
Tuesday 15 August
Friday 18 August
New Zealand: 1. Georgia Candy (GK), 2. Shannon Trebes, 3. Anneka Mittendorff, 4. Hannah Mackay-Wright, 5. Amy Waters, 6. Grace Wisnewski, 7. Kelli Brown, 8. Maya Hahn, 9. Margot Ramsay, 10. Maggie Jenkins, 11. Arabella Maynard, 12. Macey Fraser, 13. Rylee Godbold (GK), 14. Mackenzie Barry, 15. Gabrielle Rennie, 16. Jayda Stewart, 17. Aniela Jensen, 18. Britney Cunningham-Lee
Head Coach: Leon Birnie
Assistant Coaches: Alana Gunn, Emma Evans, Mike De Bono
Team Manager: Ashleigh Cox
Physiotherapists: Janina Aricheta, Hannah Dawson
International Teams Coordinator: Angelina Lee–Hussien