By Aiden McLaughlin
The season for new seasons is upon us. The Plunket Shield hit the ground running with a flurry of wickets (and numerous centrally contracted players) on Wednesday and the Breakers open(ed) the NBL in Auckland Thursday evening.
The A-League starts next weekend, but before then, defending champions Auckland City and last season’s runners up Team Wellington kick off the ISPS Handa Premiership this Sunday with their Charity Cup clash at Kiwitea Street.
The last time these teams met there wasn’t actually in the Premiership, but the second leg of their OFC Champions League semi-final in April when Team Wellington advanced to the final on away goals, following a thrilling 2-2 draw on City’s patch. This ended Auckland’s run of seven consecutive confederation titles, with Team Wellington going onto defeat Fiji’s Lautoka FC in the final the following month.
This last encounter between the teams undoubtedly adds some spice to not only this fixture, but the upcoming season as a whole. Going in, Auckland are the leading Championship team with a total of seven wins, versus five for Waitakere United; Team Wellington have two.
It’ll be nice for football fans to peel themselves away from the recent dramas at New Zealand Football and enjoy some action on the pitch. As in the last two seasons, the league stands at ten teams, with everyone playing each other home and away – seven teams from the North Island and three from the South Island as follows:
Auckland City, Eastern Suburbs, Waitakere United, Hamilton Wanderers, Hawke’s Bay United, Team Wellington, Wellington Phoenix Reserves, Tasman United, Canterbury United and Southern United.
The top four teams after the regular season go through to the 90 minute semi-finals.
For the armchair viewer, Sky currently have seventeen live regular season games locked in with another four to be scheduled (plus the semi-finals and final). These generally occupy the 4.35pm slot on a Sunday. With most other games kicking off the same afternoon at 2pm, home supporters have a chance to quickly shoot home to watch a second match or hang around in their club rooms to watch it over a few beers. The three Wellington Phoenix Reserves home games being televised also act as curtain raisers for A-League matches.
In my experience (from attending a decent number of Hawke’s Bay United games over the years), the league has a loyal supporter base. Operating on a semi-professional level, there is a comparison of sorts to be made with Rugby’s Mitre 10 Cup (albeit on a much smaller scale) and it’s fair to say that like that competition, players who perform have opportunities to move onto bigger stages. Fritz Schmid has already shown he is willing to give youth a chance and with U-23 Olympic qualifying for 2020 in mind, individuals have a chance to get themselves in the frame for that and senior honours. The Phoenix will be watching as well.
As for the overall competition, Team Wellington enter as slight favourites with the TAB over Auckland City, with a slight gap to Eastern Suburbs then Canterbury United (these four teams having made the playoffs last season). I’ll be hoping Hawke’s Bay United can bounce back from a disappointing campaign last time around (seventh) and return to the top four they last made in 2016/17.
One last thing – a favour please, which a friend asked of me last season. If you can’t go, try and watch a few games on TV. If you’re out, leave Sky on the channel the game will be on. Let’s try and ensure that viewer numbers for these matches mean that Sky continue to support the game at this level. Above all though, enjoy the season ahead.