The New Zealand U-23 men will have a chance to earn gold at the Pacific Games in Samoa after continuing their unbeaten run with another highly-notable result against senior international opposition today.
After stringing together a pair of comprehensive victories and a scoreless draw in their previous three matches, coach Des Buckingham and his young team knew a win against fellow medal contenders Papua New Guinea in their final pool game would be enough to secure top spot and a place in the play-off for gold.
They duly obliged on a typically hot and humid Apia morning, showing great maturity and an impressive degree of discipline in an fiercely-fought encounter.
A first-half penalty by Ollie Whyte and a late strike from Dane Schnell gave New Zealand their third win of the campaign as they again proved impossible to break down – it was their third clean sheet of the competition – while also providing a threat at the other end.
With a gruelling schedule of four group games in just eight days to contend with, Buckingham again made use of his squad as Seth Clark, Ihaia Delaney and Sean Cooper all came into the starting line-up.
The action was always likely to be keenly contested as Papua New Guinea also had their sights set on topping the group and so it proved with both sets of players putting their bodies on the line on numerous occasions.
It was from one such full-blooded challenge that New Zealand earned the opportunity to take the lead, captain Logan Rogerson bravely rising to meet a well-directed Lachlan McIsaac cross before being clattered by goalkeeper Ronald Warisan for a penalty. With blood streaming down Rogerson’s face from the resulting head wound, responsibility for the spot kick fell to Whyte, who calmly slotted home to give his side the lead.
Above: Captain Logan Rogerson post head knock
It was an advantage they seldom looked like relinquishing, despite Papua New Guinea trying to throw all they could at Buckingham’s young side, the average age of which was just 20.
The outstanding Conor Tracey had to be alert in goal on several occasions but clear-cut chances proved hard to come by for both sides and New Zealand took full advantage of their best opportunity in the second half to make sure of a hard-fought win.
There were just over ten minutes remaining when substitute Byron Heath burst down the left and cut the ball back for Schnell – who had now assumed the captain’s armband from the substituted Rogerson – to tuck past Warisan and wrap up a memorable victory.
The impressive nature of New Zealand’s performance can be further underlined by a glance at Papua New Guinea’s starting line-up, nine members of which were part of the team that drew nil-all against the All Whites in the final of the 2016 OFC Nations Cup before being beaten on penalties.
A proud Buckingham said the significance of the result can’t be overstated.
“I think it’s a hugely significant performance from the players – to finish top of the table but also get a result against a team like PNG is very satisfying,” he said.
“The way the group have come together is really pleasing to see and for them to put themselves in a position to compete for the gold medal is a huge achievement.”
Buckingham now has the luxury of nursing his players through to the gold medal match on Saturday, in which New Zealand will face the yet-to-be-confirmed winner of the other pool.
“We’ll take full advantage of our rest because we’ve got some very tired but excited players and these four days will get us ready for whoever we might be facing in that final,” he said.
“But to get a result against a team like that today I think has shown that, if we concentrate on who we are and what we’re about, we’re quite happy to compete against anybody.”
New Zealand 2 (Ollie Whyte pen 34’, Dane Schnell 79’)
Papua New Guinea 0