The Sleeping Giant of South Island Football Awakens as 4 South Island Players Make Their National Team Debut

Academy Club

With the quarter-finals of the OFC U16 Championship set to kick off this Saturday NZT let’s have a look back on what’s happened with the New Zealand Team so far and shine some light on the Football talent coming out of the South Island in the current crop of players.

Out of the 23 players in the squad, only 4 are from the South Island. But this is a significant amount when compared to previous U17 squads which included only a couple or sometimes no players from the South Island.

New Zealand started off the tournament hosted in Fiji with a 3-2 win over New Caledonia where current Cashmere Technical Goalkeeper Matt Foord started the game to make his New Zealand International debut in the opening game of the tournament. Nicholas Murphy and Jackson Cole also made their New Zealand U17 international debuts in the 3-2 win coming off the bench in the late stages of the game.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Nicholas Murphy after he made his debut in New Zealand’s 3-2 win over New Caledonia and he had this to say.

“When I made my debut I tried not thinking much about my emotions as I had a job to do. It was only when the final whistle blew that I realised I earnt my first cap for my country. Pretty cool moment to say the least.” 

New Zealand faced American Samoa in their second and final game of the group stage phase where they thrashed the island nation 11-0. Jackson Cole and Eric Imachi Sugahara both started the game against American Samoa and Nicholas Murphy captained the side to a comprehensive win, to top the group standings.

“Playing with the fern on my chest was one hell of an achievement, but that feeling of walking my team out and captaining my side, my country, is a feeling that will never leave me. Unbelievably honoured and proud to do so. As great as this moment is for me, by no means does it allow me to slack off. I’ve still got a job to do so that’s all I’m focusing on for now.” -Nicholas Murphy on captaining our country for the first time.

Current Cashmere Technical player Eric Imachi Sugahara made an impact in his first game for the national team when he set up New Zealand’s 5th goal of the match slipping in Luke Flowerdew with a clever through ball. Then in the second half, he played a pinpoint cross to the back post where Gabriel Sloane Rodrigues guided the ball past the keeper to make it 6-0.

It’s also notable to mention that the current U17 National Team includes 5 players that currently play overseas which is more than usual and a sign that more kiwi talents are going overseas to pursue their dreams of becoming professional footballers. The most notable name on the squad list is Marley Leuluai who plays for the Manchester City Academy in England.

As mentioned before, in previous New Zealand U17 squad selections over the years there has been a very low number of players selected from the South Island, and some years even NONE! With Aaron Clapham (based in Christchurch) appointed as the assistant coach for the Men’s U17 National Team, a shift has begun to look at South Island players more seriously when considering squad selection for the youth National Teams. 

While it’s still only 4 players compared to the North Island’s 14 players it’s a significant number and in fact very similar to the North Island when compared in a per capita basis. With the North Island having one player in the National Team for every 285,142 people in the population and the South Island having one player in the National Team for every 300,325 people in the population. 

It’s also worth mentioning here that the Hat-Trick hero Luke Supyk from the first game against New Caledonia was originally from Christchurch as well, starting off at Waimak United before moving to Nomads United and later to the Wellington Phoenix Academy where he is currently playing.

The 4 current Christchurch-based South Island players in the 23 Man U17 New Zealand Squad are creating the pathway for the next crop of U17 players and putting the South Island on the map in terms of being recognised as a hub that develops high quality footballers for the New Zealand National Team and breaking the pattern of national team selection being predominantly from North Island players.

Having played with all 4 south island players myself as a player, it’s clear to see that all 4 of them stood out in their approach from the rest of the players. First and foremost with their attitude towards training and playing the game. They were always willing to put themselves about and not afraid to make mistakes in trainings and games, these guys would always be the ones asking the coach how they can improve further, doing extra training sessions and taking their recovery seriously outside of team trainings. There is a certain pattern that makes stand out players and it starts with the fundamental attitude and the mindset.

It’s clear to see that the Christchurch United FC Academy is quickly establishing itself as a platform for players to take their Football to the next level with all 4 players in the National Team that currently play in the South Island being products of the Christchurch United FC Academy and for a significant amount of time as well. 

Matt Foord had been with the club for 7 years before moving to Cashmere Technical for the 2022 season. Eric Imachi Sugahara first joined the club over 6 years ago before moving to Cashmere Technical for the 2022 season. Nicholas Murphy has been with the club for over 7 years now and Jackson Cole is going into his 5th year at the club as well. 

We are also seeing the Christchurch International Cup that is hosted at the United Sports Centre in Christchurch every July being proved to be a high level tournament in the New Zealand scene with a significant number of players in the current U17 squad having played at the tournament over the years. 

Eric Sugahara in fact won the MVP of the U15 tournament in 2022 and is now making an impact for the national team which just goes to show that the level of the Christchurch International Cup is to be taken seriously. All 4 players from the South Island also won the Christchurch International Cup while playing for Christchurch United in the youth grades.

With the selection of more South Island players in the National Team it’s an exciting time to be a part of Football in the South Island and perhaps the sleeping giant of South Island Football Potential is finally waking up, only time will tell.

But for now, New Zealand’s attention turns to Sunday Night 8pm NZT where they will face Vanuatu in the Quarter Finals.