PNG U-23 Prepped for Gold in Pasific Games 2015

PORT MORESBY - The XV Pacific Games has helped the Papua New Guinea U-23 side settle into life as a team as they prepare to challenge for gold on home soil.

Assistant coach Reggie Davini says it has been a learning curve for the young side who are being guided by former All Whites coach Ricki Herbert.

“It’s been good, a huge learning experience. It’s been a week on the Gold Coast, a week in Kuala Lumpur and two weeks in Thailand, Bangkok,” Davini says

And it isn’t just the players who are reaping the rewards of an extended, professional build-up with one of the region’s most successful coaches at the helm.

“It’s been very beneficial for the coaching staff as well as a whole new educational experience for all the players as well,” Davani explains.

“It hasn’t just been about the football, but off the field as well. Travelling, the culture, living a professional life as an athlete and just looking after yourself – the daily stuff – it’s been good.”

The team played ten matches over the course of their build-up against professional clubs in each of the countries they visited.

“We’ve been able to really push the players and the first few weeks they went through a lot physically. On top of the games we really had to push them in trainings as well just to get them ready in terms of conditioning.

“They’ve responded well, we’ve had no injuries and everyone is ready to go.”

In terms of the results they achieved over the ten matches it’s been a mixed bag but Davani insists that the score line isn’t the focus.

“Ricki is not too fussed about the result, it’s more about the performance and the way we want to play. In terms of results it’s been mixed but in terms of the overall objective we are where we want to be, we’re on track.”

Davani says one of the most memorable matches on the journey was against one of Malaysia’s leading clubs in a stadium with a crowd capacity that has only been dreamed of.

“A lot of the players haven’t played on artificial turf or in massive stadiums, and against professional players earning big money we did really well,” he says.

“We lost 2-0 but we conceded in the 75th and 85th minutes and we should have scored two or three goals as well so we created opportunities, and we did that in all the games that we played against these professional clubs.

“Again it’s a learning experience and it’s about taking the opportunities in the big games on the big stage and that’s one of the things we’ve had to take on.”

Looking at the recently released line-up the side has some familiar names, the Komolong brothers Alwin and Felix, Patrick Aisa and Tommy Semmy, and some not so familiar.

But overall Herbert has selected a strong squad with the majority of them locally-based.

One name that emerged as a standout in 2013 at the OFC U-20 and U-17 tournaments is that of defender John Ray. He fell out of favour for the 2014 OFC U-20 Championship but Davani says a change in attitude and focus has led to the former U-17 captain earning a call-up for Port Moresby 2015.

“When we first started the whole process earlier this year, we had a chat with him. He’s one that you can see has a lot of talent, but we just needed to get his mind right for football and get his body in the right shape,” Davani explains.

“He’s probably, on the tour, one of the most improved in terms of his attitude, because technically he’s a great footballer with a lot of potential, and off the field he’s really knuckled down, focused and got himself in the right frame of mind for the games.”

Striker Tommy Semmy popped up on the radar as one of the stand-out performers for Papua New Guinea club champions Hekari United at the OFC Champions League earlier this year and is bound to be a key player for the side during the Games.

“He’s definitely a big player for us Tommy,” Davani enthuses, “just natural, raw talent.

He’s playing well for his club and he’s done well in the tour. It’s educational for him too because he’s used playing in a big club with more experienced players at his side. Now he’s with players his age and he’s having to adjust.

“And not only is he a top quality player, but he’s one we’re also looking at to lead the group during the Games.”
With their first match looming against the gold medal holders New Caledonia on Friday 3 July, Davani says the side is ready to get the competition underway.

“The tour has been tough as it’s been a long time away and the players have had to get their heads around the whole programme and what’s expected of them, because it was all foreign to them.

“They’ve come along really well and we’re building that momentum now and to be honest I think we’re ready. We’re looking forward to a big tournament on home soil, in our conditions.”

As well as the defending champions, the hosts have been drawn alongside defending Olympic champions New Zealand and Solomon Islands.

It’s going to be no mean feat to emerge at the top of Group B standings but it’s a challenge Papua New Guinea are approaching head-on.

“I think whatever group you’re in you are weary of everyone, you can’t take anything for granted or underestimate anyone,” Davani says.

“The first one is going to be very important for us. We need a good, positive start against New Caledonia, but I think everyone needs to be on their toes in this competition.”

What Davani and the team hope will make the difference is the vocal, unrelenting support of the home crowd.

Having carried out the majority of their preparations offshore they haven’t been involved in the hype that has been building up in Port Moresby as the capital gets ready to host one of the largest editions of the Pacific Games to date.
And having been out of the loop for so long, Davani says the enormity of this competition is yet to hit the players.

“Only coming in about four or five days before our first game means it won’t really hit them until we get home,” he says.

“But we’re looking forward to it. We’re excited to be playing in front of the home crowd, in front of our family and friends. We’re not just playing for the team, it’s for the whole country,” he add.

Papua New Guinea gets their XV Pacific Games and OFC Olympic Qualifying campaign underway against defending Pacific Games champions New Caledonia on 3 July at 3pm on Bisini Field 1 in Port Moresby.

The squad: Charles Lepani, Alwin Komolong (c), Abel Redenut, Basil Jofari, Darren Steven, Emmanuel Airem, Emmanuel Yawi, Felix Komolong, Freddy Steven, Gimale Essacu, John Ray, Jacob Sabua, Joshua Talau, Nathan James, Otto Kusunan, Patrick Aisa, Papalau Awele, Pettyshen Elijah, Rodney Mobiha, Sammy Rufus, Tommy Semmy, Vincent Worio, Ismael Pole. [PNGFacts]
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