By Bruce Holloway / nzfc.co.nz
For the first time since the New Zealand Football Championship started back in November, Waikato FC coach Roger Wilkinson is facing selection headaches of a positive kind.
Rather than desperately cobbling together whatever fit and eligible players he can muster, Wilkinson has the rare luxury of being able to pick and choose ahead of Waikato's game against Canterbury United at Mt Maunganui at 1pm on Sunday, with the prospect of also having an overflow of genuine talent filling the bench.
Hone Fowler, Aaron Scott and Shaun van Rooyen have returned from duty with the New Zealand Under 23 squad, where they were all first-choice players. Meanwhile Steve Holloway - a non-travelling reserve for the U23s - is also back from his professional media responsibilities in covering that tournament for the Oceania confederation.
Joe Simpkins, Sam Wilkinson, David Samson and Dale Beattie have put recent suspensions behind them, while transfer window signings Che Bunce, Matt Friel and Michael Gwyther are now part of the fabric of the team. And striker Chris Wood, 16, has stepped up from the Waikato Academy team and made an impression.
Only negative for Waikato has been the permanent loss of skipper Rob Gill. His deep-seated abdominal injury means he will miss the rest of the season and he is returning to England on Monday. It brings the curtain down on a frustrating spell for Gill, who showed promise in the early weeks of the season though rarely fulfilled his potential.
Gill was a likeable and well-respected character, but the bottom line is he seldom lived up to the goalscoring reputation which preceded him. Of his six goals for Waikato, five came from the penalty spot, and his injuries meant his work rate up front steadily declined as the season progressed. Gill just hung on long enough to pick up his final season payment.
Roger Wilkinson is looking forward to the Canterbury game after successive 0-2 losses to title hopefuls Waitakere United and Team Wellington.
"We are very disappointed to have turned in two very good performances in the past fortnight but had nothing to show for it," he said. "We see this match as a chance to rectify that situation and do justice to the quality of our play."
Dropping out of the squad are veteran Jeff Sole, youngster Nick Robson, and Stu Watene. Waikato say Watene has a hamstring injury, though he trained freely with the squad on Wednesday night.
During that session Waikato enjoyed a 7-a-side "ball in the air" game, where teams had to try and score while keeping the ball off the deck with their passing. But it would be wrong to conclude that this means Waikato will be looking to take the aerial route against Canterbury, even if the surface at Links Ave is less carpet-like than Waikato Stadium. The exercise could more readily be explained in terms of the appallingly bumpy, drought-ridden, pitch conditions on which Waikato train midweek at the back of Porritt Stadium.
While Waikato are fifth, with little prospect of moving much either way in the table, bottom-placed Canterbury still have a chance of avoiding the wooden spoon if they can pick up victories in matches like this. Like Waikato, they have played better in recent weeks than their position indicates.
"Sunday’s match is a very important one for us," said Canterbury coach Korouch Monsef. "Our performances have continuously improved from week to week and we have deserved more in the way of results than we have received. This week the aim is to combine performance with obtaining a positive result."
In particular, Waikato must be aware of the damage Rhodri Payne can do with his pinpoint left-footed free kicks. Canterbury also have defender Matt Boyd back from suspension and Michael Fifii back from international duty with the Solomon Islands.
In previous meetings this summer the teams drew 1-1 in Christchurch and Waikato won 3-1 in Hamilton.
Waikato FC (WLWLL)
Canterbury United (LLLWL)
The inclusion of Oly-Whites trio – Hone Fowler, Aaron Scott, and Shaun van Rooyen – bolsters Waikato’s squad as does the return of Joe Simpkins (from suspension) and Steven Holloway (from work commitments).
Michael Fifii is back from Solomon Island’s U-23 duty and Matt Boyd returns from suspension.
Stu Watene (hamstring injury) and Jeff Sole make way.
Academy players Jeremy Wild and Cameron Bell return to Canterbury’s youth team for their home semi-final against Auckland-Manukau on Saturday.
Waikato have scored one goal in their last four games.
Canterbury need a point to better the league’s worst ever points haul (5 points, Hawke’s Bay 05-06) and at least four more to have a chance of avoiding the wooden spoon.
NZFC - Round 18, Links Ave
Sunday 16 March
1-Danny Robinson (GK)
1-Chris Sinclair (GK)
14-Shaun van Rooyen
19- Matt Boyd
22-Scott Dunn (GK)