IC08 Preview - NZ Falcons ready to soar again

Tuesday, July 29 2008 @ 08:05 am ACST

Contributed by: Rod Shaw

The New Zealand Falcons will return to defend their title. This is a country that has been competitive with the very best from Darwin’s Arafura Festival through to their stand-out performance to date in winning the tournament in 2005. They appear certain to make it through to the semi-final round, and it will take a complete performance to knock them out of Cup contention.

Locally CEO Rob Vanstam has been busy implementing school based programmes, particularly in Auckland, Waikato and Christchurch provinces. The NZAFL has taken junior teams to the Barassi Youth Tournament, has encouraged and often helped facilitate players to be regularly involved in senior competitions within Australia, has had yearly games for the Senior Falcons against the Maffra Eagles from the strong Gippsland competition to develop and challenge players and took the seniors to the Australian Country Football Championships in 2006.

In short, the NZAFL has been very active in developing players for the future and for the present, allowing many the opportunity to pull on the Silver Fern at both senior and junior level.

Coaching the Falcons in Melbourne and Warrnambool will be Rob Vanstam, the NZAFL CEO who was an Assistant to Jim Lucy in the 2005 tournament. Rob’s playing career included representing Queensland in the Teal Cup 1982, playing in the AFLQ competition from 1981 to 1985 for Western Districts, playing in the AFLQ competition from 1986 to 1995 for Morningside and he represented Queensland in 1989 against Australian Amateurs, VFA and ACT.

As a coach he has been in charge of the Morningside Reserve Grade in the AFLQ in 1994, the Auckland competition’s North Shore Tigers from 2003 -2005 and again from 2007 on, coached the Auckland NPC team at the NZ National Titles in 2004 and the New Zealand Falcons in the 2006 Australian Country Championships.

As far as NZ’s expectations for the Falcons it is without a doubt that they believe they are prepared to go back to back, though not a word has passed either the coach or Media Liaison Officer’s lips to confirm this!

The Country and Australian football

New Zealand is a close neighbour to Australia with a population of around 5 million. It shares many things with Australia but traditionally a love of Aussie Rules has not been one of them across the greater population. The national sport for the Kiwis is Rugby Union and the All Blacks are their religion. Despite this there is a growing band of devoted AFL followers within the two main islands and the football played there is of a reasonable standard, at local level. Footy is played in 4 of the major provinces with Auckland maintaining a 6 team League with a Reserve Grade, Christchurch a strong 4 team competition, Wellington a battling four team competition, at present, and the Waikato has two teams as they develop from nothing three years ago. Schoolboy footy is currently played in area tournaments from which provincial teams are selected to conduct the National Championships.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Anyone who has had anything to do with the Kiwis will know that they have no problem being strong over the ball, generally have size on their side and are fierce tacklers. Since 1995 they have added an increasing level of skill so that the majority of players are now both sided players and have a far greater awareness of the game. Those who saw them in 2005 would have seen a team prepared to honour the lead, use time and space and play footy that is in many ways indistinguishable from a reasonable local team in Melbourne.

As far as weaknesses it is hard to judge as they are the benchmark. I guess perhaps the out and out speed of PNG might be a challenge when they break into attack, if firstly they can win the ball from the Kiwis and perhaps the Kiwis could be unsettled by a team prepared to walk the line or maybe a team committed to fierce one on one football could challenge the Falcons.

Players to watch

The Falcons captain Andrew Congalton is a very fine player having learnt the game as a teenager alongside his good mate and current All Black, Nick Evans. Both toured Australia in 2000 with the NZ Junior Falcons. Well known to the international footy community will be flashy goalkicker James Bowden and the clean handling and very assured Geoff Thomas, and Matt Callaghan has been playing in the South Fremantle Reserves so is sure to have added further polish to his game which already saw him as a stand out ruckman for the Falcons in 2005. The terrific Richard Bradley will play as a key forward and is both a clean and strong mark and deadly accurate with his boot. Others currently in Australia, Morgan Jones, Moss Doran, Scott McNally and the venerable Paul Gunning should be all the better for the experience. Graham Rattenbury is coming out of the Wellington competition with very big wraps as an on-baller. The younger players are obviously unknown to many but will have edged out more experienced and some finely talented players to take their places in the squad. The fact that there are 10 players in the team who have come through the NZAFL development programmes and squads, says much for the success of these.

Form Guide

NZ at senior level has been continuing to develop their playing depth and ability through yearly challenges against the Maffra Eagles and participated in the 2006 Australian Country Championships. The juniors have taken part in the Barassi Youth Tournament. Locally National Championships have been held in the intervening period between International Cups. Their results against the Aussies have not been mind blowing but those in the know have been pleased with the progress shown.

Bottom Line

Likely favourites and expected to go deep into the tournament with an excellent chance of being the first country to successfully defend their International Cup title.

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