Season preview: Differing fortunes for Southern Conference’s two top sides

By Jack Sharp

The two leading clubs from last season — Waikato Unicol and Cambridge — have had hugely contrasting summers as they prepare for this year’s Lotto NRFL Southern Conference.

Defending champions Unicol, who missed promotion to the Lotto NRFL Men’s Championship by losing a promotion play-off to Northern Conference winners Franklin United, look a different proposition in 2024.

They’ve lost title-winning coach Scott Parsonage and many of their best players since last year’s success.

At the same time, runners-up Cambridge have significantly strengthened their squad under head coach Jordan Shaw.

In 2023, Unicol and Cambridge turned the title race into a two-club affair that went down to the final game, and they were separated by only a point.

Cambridge now look the team to beat, and the question is how far will Unicol slide?

Josh Clarkin … must be the favourite for back-to-back Golden Boots in the Southern Conference.

Here’s how the clubs shape up this year (in order of how they finished last season):


The Reds have retained last year’s Golden Boot winner Josh Clarkin, and added to their attack with a string of key signings.

Shaw has signed Bailey Webster and Donovan Latham from Unicol, and striker Jack Connor from Te Awamutu.

All three are proven goalscorers and have moved between Waikato clubs.

Midfielder Marc Glenister (25) returns to Cambridge after spells with Te Awamutu and Melville United.

Cambridge have lost teenage midfielder Luke Brooke-Smith (to Hamilton Wanderers) and striker Krishaant Singh (Claudelands Rovers)

Waikato Unicol 

Unicol have brought in goalkeeper Ollie Giles-Miller, from Te Awamutu.

But the summer exodus from Unicol includes the loss of Levi Clark (Ngaruawahia United), Harry Christenson-Rose (Ngaruawahia United), Aidan Robson (Ngaruawahia United), Bailey Webster (Cambridge), Donovan Latham (Cambridge), Ernest Pidoke (Claudelands Rovers), Sam McFarlane (Claudelands Rovers) and Thomas O’Leary (Claudelands Rovers).

Waikato Unicol (yellow strip) lost their last game of 2023, the promotion play-off against Franklin United. Photo: Regan Dewar / Phototek.


Taupo finished third last season and their form was inextricably linked to the availability of goalscorer Joe O’Donoghue.

When he was there to score the goals, Taupo were in with a chance of a win.

Coach Raymond How will need to have strengthened around O’Donogue (30) if the side is going to mount a challenge.

The club have signed Andrew O’Donoghue from Franklin United.

Claudelands Rovers

Fourth last year, head coach Paul Richardson has brought in three from Unicol, Ernest Pidoke, Sam McFarlane and Thomas O’Leary. Defender Sean Rogers has joined from Ngaruawahia United where he played for the U-23s last term.

Rovers will have Krishaant Singh, signed from Richardson’s old club Cambridge, and he could be the main source of goals.


Papamoa were disappointing last season and are in need of a boost. Maybe the side will benefit from the skills of Carl Edwards, a highly-experienced football analyst who has taken a director of football role with the club.

Edwards, whose last job was with English club Derby County, has worked previously for the Houston Dynamo (United States), Wellington Phoenix, NZ Football and US Soccer.

READ MORE: Top analyst to return to New Zealand for Director of Football role at Papamoa >>>>

Papamoa have lost goalkeeper Nathan Marlowe (to Melville United) and youngster Malachy Ryan (Tauranga City).


Otumoetai clawed their way out of relegation trouble last season and are unlikely to start as badly this year.

Director of football Joe Dixon will coach the first team, assisted by the experienced Ross Johnson.

READ MORE: Otumoetai name coaching staff for men’s Southern Conference campaign >>>>

Over summer, the club has lost Sam Cox-Ellison (to Whakatane Town) and Caelan Fraher (Tauranga City).

Ngongotaha Lakes

This is the second season that Ngongotaha FC and Lakes FC have competed in the Southern Conference as a new entity.

Teething problems last year (and a leaky defence) left the side second bottom, avoiding the wooden spoon only on goal difference.

This year, they have a fresh coaching staff in Trevor Johnston, Mark Trembath and Carl Chadwick.

READ MORE: Ngongotaha Lakes appoint coaching trio for Lotto NRFL Southern Conference >>>>

Te Awamutu

The Waipa club are back again, despite finishing bottom last season, due to a lack of clubs willing to seek promotion to the Conference.

Last season’s experience will prove useful for coach Ian Stringfellow and his squad.

They’ll be without Lorenz Magaard-Romano (to Wellington’s Seatoun), goalkeeper Ollie Giles-Miller (Waikato Unicol) and striker Jack Connor (Cambridge).


Cambridge will run away with the title, providing they don’t think it’s already in the bag.

I’m tipping Waikato Unicol to go from heroes to zeroes, and to finish bottom of the competition.

Otumoetai and Papamoa will be the improvers.

What’s at stake

The winner of the Southern Conference will meet the winner of the Lotto NRFL Northern Conference in an end-of-season play-off to decide which club is promoted to the Lotto NRFL Men’s Championship.

READ MORE: Late changes to promotion/relegation rules disrupt start to season >>>>

How they finished last year


Games to be played on Friday March 29, 2024

Cambridge v Ngongotaha Lakes
John Kerkhof Park, Cambridge, 3pm

Te Awamutu v Otumoetai
The Stadium, Te Awamutu, 3pm

Games to be played on Saturday March 30, 2024

Taupo v Claudelands Rovers
Crown Park, Taupo, 3pm

Papamoa v Waikato Unicol
Links Ave, Mt Maunganui, 3pm

Jack Sharp

Jack Sharp is a long-time follower of club football in New Zealand and is a volunteer writer for Friends of Football.

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