By Jack Sharp
The revamped Lotto NRFL Championship — previously known as the first division — has had a proper shake-up over summer.
Apart from the new name, there have been big changes in personnel in the dugouts.
Waiheke United, Metro, North Shore United, Mt Albert Ponsonby, Hibiscus Coast, Ngaruawahia United and Onehunga Mangere United go into the new season with new coaches.
North Shore and Waiheke drop down from the Northern League, both with new coaches eager to bounce back.
Hibiscus Coast and Ngaruawahia come up from the ‘old’ second division (now split into Northern and Southern Conferences), with changes to both sets of coaching staff.
In this league, it may take a week or two to see who will emerge as contenders for promotion or at risk of relegation.
Game of the week
North Shore United always looked like relegation candidates last season, starting poorly in the Northern League … and managing to get even worse.
But under new coach Dylan Burns, Shore must hope for a fresh start, and have built around a group of youngsters.
READ MORE: North Shore United announce first signings for new Lotto NRFL season >>>>
READ MORE: North Shore United go into new Lotto NRFL season with new coach >>>>
Mount Albert Ponsonby finished last term as the form side in the ‘old’ division one.
Since then, they’ve lost a few players, including top scorer Jared Colligan (to Te Atatu) and defender Cameron Sinclair (to Franklin United).
But they’ve picked up a few interesting replacements, including French import Nicolas Destaing (20), an academy player on exchange from Paris St Germain. Word is he’s going to do well at this level.
It’s hard to know which of these sides will be the real thing this year which makes this game worthy of attention.
Player to watch
Northern Rovers play Onehunga Mangere United in the season opener, and it’ll be worth checking out the form of Argentine forward Gonzalo Freddi (29).
He signed for Rovers after the last five years playing in his native Argentina, following three seasons with Dandenong and Murray United in the Victorian National Premier League Division 2.
READ MORE: Northern Rovers sign Argentine winger/striker for Lotto NRFL campaign >>>>
Both the competition’s promoted sides have big tasks in round one.
Hibiscus Coast travel to Mt Maunganui to face Tauranga whose young squad will be better for the experience last season, and under head coach Barry Gardiner, will be well prepared.
Ngaruawahia United earned promotion on the last day of last season but could be in for a rude awakening at this level when they head to North Harbour Stadium, the temporary home ground for East Coast Bays (whose Bay City Park is undergoing upgrades ahead of hosting the United States team for the FIFA Women’s World Cup).
Bays have lost top goalscorer Keegan Kelly (to Western Springs) but have recruited a South Korean K-League defender, Leo (Taeho) Kim (33), and signed former Auckland City and Birkenhead United player Moses Akimana (23), back from a five-season spell in the United States.
Experienced forward Dylan Stansfield (28) will lead the attack after a break last year.
READ MORE: K-League defender and Chatham Cup winner among East Coast Bays signings >>>>
I’m tipping both promoted sides to lose their season openers.
One more thing …
Full marks to Ellerslie for their excellent match programme, The Ave. Click on the image to open the digital version:
Ellerslie have also produced a comprehensive list of player movements in/out of their clubs, as well as confirming their 2023 squad.
READ MORE: Ellerslie confirm men’s first team squad for Lotto NRFL Championship >>>>
Games to be played on Saturday March 25, 2023
Ellerslie AFC v Waiheke United
Michaels Ave, Ellerslie, 3pm
Fencibles United v Metro
Riverhills Park, Pakuranga, 3pm
East Coast Bays v Ngaruawahia United
North Harbour Stadium, Albany, 3pm
Tauranga City v Hibiscus Coast
Ocean Downs, Mt Maunganui, 3pm
North Shore United v Mt Albert Ponsonby
Allen Hill Stadium, Devonport, 3pm
Northern Rovers v Onehunga Mangere United
McFetridge Park, Glenfield, 3pm
Jack Sharp is a long-time follower of club football in New Zealand, and is a volunteer writer for Friends of Football. He’s filling in for our regular Lotto NRFL Men’s Championship writer Jonno Ross who’ll be back soon.