By Rab Smith
DUNEDIN - Otago United have been training hard, in Dunedin and Christchurch, to prepare for their ASB Premiership opener against Waikato FC at Tahuna Park on Sunday.
But there is no substitute for match practice, and coach Malcolm Fleming realises his side will have to hit the dirt running on Sunday with a team shape based on key players who did so well last year.
And even that philosophy is a bit scratchy, since Goalkeeper James Waggitt, Robbie Deeley, Dave Dugdale, Dan Ede, Ryan Faichnie and Stu Kelly have left Dunedin.
But, ever the optimist, Fleming is confident that the squad he has assembled for this season will acquit itself well, and has a balance that was possibly not there last year.
Notable acquisitions create the teams experienced backbone with keeper Adam Highfield, midfielder Paul Seaman and striker Phil Ruggles forming the vertebrae.
Former NZ Youth international Highfield clocked up nearly a decade playing overseas, and after icy morning training in Finland of -4 degrees the big keeper thinks Otago is actually quite tropical.
Seaman who played for Wales at U-18 level, has been in New Zealand for a decade, apart from a short spell playing professionally in Malta. Well known in Enzed as tough midfielder, he is sure to add steel to his new side, and hopes to chime in with a goal or two also.
Striker Ruggles is a mate of Seaman’s, strong on the ball, he is a good receiver in the Dugdale mould, but with a more imposing physique.
Left mid Andy Coburn also has huge experience and is only seven matches away from becoming a National League Centurion. Not far behind is Seaman with 81 matches, and Otago’s team captain centreback Tim Horner will clock up 60 games at top level.
Otago has its share of talented youngsters, in Matt Brook, Sam Mepham, James Watson, Liam Lockhart and Curtis Day, who are likely to taste top football from the bench this season.
But for Otago to do better than last year’s fifth position, what Fleming call his "middle group" must make the step up.
"If the players who have already had some national league experience, can confirm their potential, mentally and physically – we will do well," said the Otago coach.
Waikato meister coach Willy Gerdsen watched his side go close to snatching a draw or possibly more from Auckland in the opening match, and that baptism will have boosted morale.
Sometimes called Auckland’s third eleven, Waikato has as many outsiders playing for them as Otago does, and Nathan Strom is one who will get a loud welcome since he spent student days in Dunedin.
Injuries to Alex Barlow, David Smith and David Samson are offset by the inclusion of Joe Bresnahan and Tewi Te Pou. And the reported incisive strike duo of Milos Nicolic and Nathan Palmer is sure to test Otago.
With stats of 6 wins to Otago and 4 to Waikato, plus 6 draws in 16 games, the odds look even, but the home sides lack of real match practice could be a telling factor.
Joe BRESNAHAN and Tewi TE POU
Alex BARLOW ruled out with a broken leg, Ryan ZOGHBY is unavailable due to work commitments and David SAMSON is suffering a hand injury. David SMITH has a knee injury while Miguel BAEZA is not selected.
Paul SEAMAN will make his 82nd ASB Premiership career appearance, if selected. Andy COBURN will make his 94th ASB Premiership career appearance, if selected. Tim HORNER will make his 60th ASB Premiership career appearance, if selected.
Tewi TE POU will make his 10th ASB Premiership career appearance, if selected.
Otago United have lost to Waikato FC just once in their previous five ASB Premiership encounters. Otago have played Waikato FC seven times in Dunedin with one win, five draws and one defeat recorded since 2004-05 season.
Waikato FC have not beaten Otago United in their previous three matches. Their last victory over Otago United was a 2-0 success achieved in 2007. Last season Waikato FC clinched a 2-2 draw courtesy of a double by striker Michael GWYTHER, now with Waitakere United.
ASb Premiership - Week Three
Sunday 7 November, 2010
1-Adan HIGHFIELD (GK)
1-John FLETCHER (GK)
3- Tristan PRATTLEY
4- Matt THOMAS
4- Ryan ZOGHBY
5- Hayden GUNN
5- Nathan STROM
6- Tom SADD
6- Nick BRANCH
7- Nathan KNOX
7- Jason HICKS
8- Paul SEAMAN
8- Jason McKEOWN
9- Anthony HANCOCK
9- Mark JONES
10- Phil RUGGLES
10- Daniel PEAT
11- Andy COBURN
11- Nathan PALMER
12- James REICHWIN
12- Jack BEGUELY
13- Cam BURNS (GK)
14- Joe BRESNAHAN
15- Morgan DAY
16- Tewi TE POU
16- Harley RODEKA
17- Milos NIKOLIC
17- Tim HORNER
22- Alex CARR (GK)
18- Tom CONNOR
24- Mauri WASI
21- Matt BROOK