By Tim Klingbiel
The women’s division has undergone a number of changes in 2018, with the planned structure of having separate 1st Division and 2nd Division competitions ultimately scrapped midway through last week.
The current state of play sees a single combined competition for the southern teams, consisting of two sides each from Boambee Eagles, Urunga Raiders and Woolgoolga Wildcats, and one each from Bellingen Victory, Coffs City United Lionsesses, Corindi Breakers, Macksville Stingers, Nambucca Strikers, Orara Valley Dingoes and Sawtell Scorpions for a 13 team comp, in addition to the 7 team Women’s 2nd Division North consisting of Maclean Green and Maclean White, Grafton United Sirens, Majos FC, Westlawn Tigers and Yamba Breakers.
A nailbiting 4-3 away loss to Nambucca on the weekend shouldn’t discourage Connell Park’s finest, as their stirring near-comeback from 4-0 down early in the second half showed a sense of spirit and resolve that augurs well for the remainder of the season.
While the 4-0 part of that equation is obviously something the brains trust of the black and white will need to address going forward, the way the Victory recaptured the midfield battle, stretched the Strikers defence and attacked in waves was a major positive. Such was the magnitude of their resurgence that they could possibly consider themselves slightly unlucky not to come away with at least a point – even Nambucca admitted that the final scoreline flattered their girls.
With the bye this weekend, the Victory will have time to take stock and improve certain areas of their game that were lacking last time out. Their second half display will surely make future opponents sit up and take notice and there is something about this side that suggests a number of more fancied opponents may have real difficulty picking up full points against them in 2018.
With ‘Team 1’ dominating the competition in recent seasons and winning the Premiership/Championship double in 2017 after a heart-stopping shootout against the fired-up Woolgoolga Wildcats on grand final night, and ‘Team 2’ only missing out on a grand final appearance after a post-game inquiry revealed an administrative oversight that controversially rendered them ineligible for major honours, the Ayrshire Park girls come into 2018 hitting the ground running.
With minimal squad changes allowing for a near unprecedented level of consistency, pre-season for team 1 was marked by excellent commitment within the ranks. Glenn Bennett spends another year at the helm and will have justifiably high expectations for his girls. This is a squad packed with talent, and one fully equipped with the tools to weather the rigours of a long season and the experience and composure to perform under pressure and give the best possible account of themselves when it matters most.
The weekend’s emphatic 5-0 victory over their 2017 grand final foes the Wildcats at High Street saw them kick their season off in the best possible way, and provided the perfect lead-in for this weekend’s home game against a dangerous Nambucca Strikers side who have won both of their games – pre- and post-restructure, the former of which will not count for points – thus far. Anything less than a win for the Eagles would be considered a disappointment by the home faithful though, so the pressure is on to deliver another accomplished performance.
‘Team 2’ have recruited seven new players into their squad this season and will take a little longer to gel together having spent precious little time on the field as a cohesive team unit. Player numbers have dwindled somewhat on game day, with the scarce bench on Saturday harshly juxtaposed by Woolgoolga’s tide of blue shirts. With Eagles ‘2’ struggling to connect well early on, they conceded two early goals but regathered to stem the flow and 2-0 was how it finished on the afternoon.
Fiona Clancy’s girls return home this weekend to take on Macksville Stingers in a fixture that is sure to attract a bit of spice after the way things transpired during the business end of last season. There really are no easy games in this competition, but the Eagles ‘2’ will have their eyes on the 3 points every time they come up against the teams who originally nominated for the 2nd Division competition, and this weekend will thus be key to their aspirations in 2018.
Coffs City United Lionesses
After the certain disappointment of a 7th place finish in 2017, the Lionesses look to have put the blues behind them with a dominant 4-0 triumph over Corindi Breakers opening their season in style on a warm Saturday afternoon just up the highway.
It will be tough for the Lionesses to recapture the glory of past years that saw them appearing regularly in finals football and challenging for silverware, but they have certainly gotten off to an excellent start and the supporters at Forsyth Park will be quietly confident of their girls’ potential to spring a few upsets along the way this season.
They return home to Maclean Street this weekend, but a tough assignment awaits them in the form of Woolgoolga Wildcats ‘2’, who will undoubtedly be hungry to get one over an opposition side formerly of the top grade in a battle of the felines.
Having last appeared in senior women’s football in 2013, it’s been a long time between drinks for the Breakers. A plucky side in their heyday and a tough out for any team, with several grand final appearances and a laundry list of achievements from a 2004 Champion of Champions title, a 2007 Championship and a 2009 Golden Boot winner in the form of the imperious Gabby Dickinson, the Breakers have a proud history of women’s football and it is refreshing to see them back in the competition.
It’s not going to be an overnight project though, and indeed it was a baptism of fire on the weekend as they went down 4-0 at home to the Lionesses. It won’t get any easier this week, with another home fixture seeing them play host to the powerful Urunga Raiders ‘1’ side. It’s an extremely tall order and the girls in yellow and purple will need to be as gutsy as ever if they’re to get something out of this one.
An unlikely grand final victory in 2017 for the Stingers capped off a rollercoaster season where they finished third and were defeated on aggregate by the Eagles in the semi-finals before progressing to the big dance as a result of an administrative quirk. They took their opportunity with both hands though, and full credit must go to the girls who were the toast of the town following their landmark achievement.
Facing an Orara Valley Dingoes side at home for their first official game of season 2018 appeared to be a task within their reach after their opponents’ bottom place finish in 1st Division last season with a -74 goal difference and only a solitary point to their credit, but it was the Dairyville side who came home with the chocolates in a 5-3 thriller.
The Stingers will need to ameliorate their early defensive woes this week as they come up against an Eagles ‘2’ side who will be fired up after last season’s finals shenanigans, and it’s just about the pick of the weekend’s contests. The 1pm kick off at Ayrshire Park will no doubt add some oppressive heat to what shapes as an already searing battle and it is sure to be a great spectacle for the neutral.
The Strikers had an inauspicious 2017, finishing second from bottom in 2nd Division, but there is an altogether different vibe about this side in this year’s edition of the women’s competition. Some canny off-season recruiting including last week’s debutantes Anna Champion and Terri White, as well as the retention of solid performers such as keeper Keily Chase, backs Cheree Chapman, Jess White and Melissa Urquhart, playmakers Amie Goswell and Emily Lane, pacy flankers Brea Welsh and Kyiesha Cohen, midfielders Simone Jordan and Sam Walsh and attacker Carly Smith has the Strikers primed for much bigger things in 2018.
A win first up was scratched after the competitions were merged, but that didn’t deter the Strikers, who turned on a scintillating first half display against Bellingen that saw Smith open the scoring after a solo run, saved first attempt and delicately chipped follow up, Cohen flying down the right to bury a Walsh through ball first time, and Champion finishing off a mazy run to go to the break 3-0.
A second to the debuting Champion as well as some exciting lead up play from her and fellow newcomer White had the Strikers four to the good early in the second stanza, but a late fade allowed the Victory back into the contest and they ultimately only just hung on for a 4-3 win.
Major second half collapse aside, there is a lot to like about this reinvigorated Strikers side, though they will have their hands full this weekend as they travel to Ayrshire Park to take on competition colossi Boambee Eagles ‘1’. If they can produce some of the play that saw them gallop away to a massive first half lead against the Victory, however, they may just be able to cause the reigning Premiers and Champions a few more headaches than they had bargained for.
Orara Valley Dingoes
Last season did not go as planned for the Dingoes, as they finished at the foot of the 1st Division table with a distant margin to their nearest opponent. With a single point from 14 games and a goal difference of -74, one could easily forgive them for approaching this season with some trepidation and pessimism, but Saturday’s display against Macksville was anything but.
A pulsating 5-3 away win saw them get their season off to the perfect start, sitting at the lofty heights of equal 3rd after the completion of the first round’s play. A tough but not impossible task lies ahead for the Dingoes as they take on Urunga Raiders ‘2’ at home this weekend. Their certainly seems to be some goals in this side and the home ground advantage may be just enough to squeak them over the line in what should be another close and intriguing battle.
A tough loss against Urunga Raiders ‘2’ meant Rachael Oberleuter’s Scorpions weren’t able to start their season off quite as they would have liked, but there were still some encouraging signs on display. Shorn of their two regular strikers, a goal conceded in each half was ultimately too much for the ladies in green to overcome, but the game was not without three or four solid chances on goal for the away side that they may well have converted on another day with their first choice attack at their disposal.
A 3-3 draw with Coffs United pre-restructure showed a lot of what this Scorpions team are about – down 2-0 at half-time, a rousing comeback saw them back up to 3-2 until running out of legs with 10 minutes on the clock and settling for a point.
Having originally nominated for 2nd Division, the Scorpions have had to adapt quickly to the increased demands of the competition, but Oberleuter has both two under 16 girls teams, each full of talented players who will make a mark at senior level in coming years, and an over 30s side to draw upon for reinforcements.
A core group of five or six players have stayed on from 2017, with the entire rest of the squad changing – with one recruit from Cairns, two returning from maternal duties, three coming over from the now folded Dorrigo Cedars team and some juniors making the step up, it has been a mixed bag and at times a steep learning curve for this cohort of Scorpions women.
With school holidays serving to shake things up further still, Oberleuter has had to field different teams this week and looks forward to achieving greater cohesion and consistency as the season progresses. Two weeks off after this weekend’s fixture will allow the Toormina based side to take stock and focus on getting the little things right on the training paddock, which will surely stand them in good stead for the remainder of the season. Though this is very much a rebuilding phase, Oberleuter believes there is enough strength in depth within the ranks that come 2019 they will be able to field 1st Division and reserve grade sides (should the competition structure permit).
Trevor Martin has been tasked with both Raiders sides this season and although ‘1’ had the bye in the first round, an outstanding performance the previous week against Woolgoolga has him feeling very positive about their chances this season.
Having lost a total of five players from the 2017 squad, the Raiders looked light on when pre-season training started back in January. But an influx of new players, as well as a few returning club stalwarts, meant that by the time the season proper kicked off, Martin was able to call on strong numbers for both squads.
Raiders ‘2’ played the returning Scorpions on the weekend and Martin was pleased overall with what was a solid first round performance. With solid structure across the park on display, the primary missing ingredient on the afternoon was clinical finishing as the Raiders were often left wanting in the front third, despite playing the majority of the game in the attacking half.
Martin was encouraged in particular by his side’s approach to retaining possession, which he says is a cornerstone of the coaching philosophy he is looking to instil in his girls. The assistance of Dave Dunn with ‘Team 2’ has been valuable and Martin expects even the second string Raiders to be there or thereabouts at the end of the season and feature in finals calculations.
If early indications are anything to go by, Raiders ‘1’ will be serious Premiership contenders and the reigning top dogs Boambee Eagles ‘1’ will have their work cut out for them to secure another title in 2018. The Raiders travel to Corindi to take on a Breakers side still reacquainting themselves to the standard of top level local senior football, while ‘2’ will take a trip to Dairyville to face a reinvigorated Dingoes side with a point to prove.
Both Wildcats sides qualified for their respective grand finals in 2017, the first such occasion in donkey’s years as a real buzz brewed at High Street towards the business end of the season. Though each fell agonisingly short of glory – the 1st Division girls pushing the highly fancied Boambee Eagles all the way before succumbing in a penalty shootout after a truly dramatic game for the ages, and the 2nd Division side going down to the unfancied Macksville Stingers in a contest decided by the thinnest of margins – the depth of the playing group coming through on the Northern Beaches is an exciting prospect for anyone who appreciates the game at local level.
With the ‘2’s recording an impressive first round victory over Boambee Eagles ‘2’, keeping a clean sheet at home to prevail 2-0, the ‘1’s have had an altogether tougher start to 2018 with a difficult outing against Urunga before the competition consolidation and then a 5-0 humbling at the hands of Eagles ‘1’ last week.
The ‘2’s will be keen to keep the momentum going against a Lionesses side who look to have found form after a shaky first outing against Sawtell, and they will travel to Forsyth Park full of confidence that they can get the job done. The ‘1’s will look to ease the pressure brought on by the unfamiliar and likely brief nadir of occupying the bottom spot on the ladder, as they take on a Scorpions outfit struggling to find squad consistency. Two important fixtures for the girls in blue and the picture for both sides should be slightly clearer come Sunday.