Having come through the OFC U-16 Championship group stage relatively unscathed, Tahiti are looking to follow in footsteps of the nation’s U-19 team by qualifying for the FIFA U-17 World Cup.
But standing in their way are firm favourites and seven-time champions New Zealand who are chasing an eighth, and seventh-consecutive, regional title.
One of Tahiti’s toughest matches so far was definitely the opening one against New Caledonia, a closely fought contest which fell in the French Polynesians favour and set the course for their remaining Group B games.
Next up for Hermann Aurentz’s side was Fiji who they saw off with a hat-trick for Denji Kaiha and no goals conceded. The final test was Samoa who following two tight games were expected to bring their all for their final match in Honiara.
Samoa took Tahiti by surprise with an opening goal in the second minute putting the Tahitians behind for the first time in three matches.
After the initial shock had worn off Tahiti showcased the strength of their mentality by coming back to lead 3-1 at half-time, before scoring twice more in the second half to claim a 5-1 victory.
However it wasn’t a match that was as easy as the score line might suggest with Samoa determined not to exit without giving their all, which resulted in both sides losing a player and an excessive amount of cautions dished out.
Tahiti will now be without goal scorer Denji Kaiha, but fortunately for Aurentz that final group match showed he has depth on his bench.
Now, he said, the whole squad has to prove itself one more time to turn their dream into a reality.
“It’s up to the boys to show that they’re capable of following the U-19s by qualifying for a world cup of their own,” Aurentz said.
“We’ve spent every moment preparing right up until today, to play New Zealand tomorrow and qualify for this FIFA U-17 World Cup.
“We’re very excited to be playing in this semi-final, especially against New Zealand who are the favourites in Oceania.”
Aurentz said his side’s style and that of this New Zealand side are quite similar which means separating the two sides will be about more than just the football.
“The boys can’t wait to play this match and I would say that our two sides have a very similar style of game.
“So I would say that in terms of the game, I think it will probably come down to who is stronger mentally.
“I admire the New Zealand team. They’re a great side technically and tactically but we all have weaknesses and we’ll try to play on those weaknesses to gain an advantage on the field.”
It hasn’t been as straightforward as usual for New Zealand here in Honiara.
The opening match was a massive confidence-boost for Jose Figueira’s side as they ran out to an 8-0 victory over Vanuatu.
However a rude awakening was in store in their next encounter as the home side Solomon Islands turned the tables on the Kiwis serving them a 5-0 defeat.
It seemed like a shock exit might then be on the cards as they fell 1-0 behind Papua New Guinea in a must-win final group match. However two smart changes at half-time saw Henry Hamilton and Bradley Wilson putting New Zealand 3-1 up just minutes into the second-half.
Papua New Guinea weren’t done scaring their opponents however, knocking in two second half goals of their own, but a third substitute Benjamin Old made sure New Zealand sealed the victory they needed.
Although it hasn’t exactly gone to plan, the objective of a place in the semi-finals has been locked in allowing Figueira to breathe a little easier.
“The objective was always to get ourselves in the position we’re in tomorrow,” he said, before elaborating on the journey.
“Honiara is never an easy place to come but for the players and the staff, it’s somewhere that you are certainly out of your comfort zone and it’s been a great experience so far for the players.
“I think they’ve done an excellent job in all the games and it’s great to be fighting for that goal tomorrow of qualifying for the world cup.”
While Figueira has been in this position before – he led New Zealand against Tahiti in the final of the OFC U-17 Championship in 2015 which New Zealand won in a penalty shootout – for the players it’s a completely new experience.
Captain Campbell Strong has heard tales of Honiara and the various elements which add up to making it a tough place for New Zealand to play, however he feels the side won’t use that as an excuse.
“I’d always heard it would be rough over here and definitely has proven to be for me, and for the team as well,” he said.
“We’ve adapted to things now and obviously we’ll put all our effort into Tahiti tomorrow. It’s the one we want to play. Qualification for the world cup is what you dream of when you’re a young boy so we’re looking forward to it.”
Figueira added that the emotions that have built up over the past three days as they’ve waited on tomorrow’s game will subside once it finally gets underway.
“I think once the game kicks off all of the emotions and excitement will subside into the background,” he said.
“Leading up into the games, like our first game here, it’s an exciting time and once that ball gets rolling and the players make their first pass they’ll be fully focused and immersed into the game.
“We’re obviously very excited, but obviously more excited to just get out there. I feel like we haven’t quite reached our full potential yet and believe that it’s coming.
“Hopefully we see it out there tomorrow.”
Tahiti vs. New Zealand
Wednesday 19 September
Lawson Tama Stadium
Honiara, Solomon Islands
KO: 15:00 local (16h FIJ & NZL / Tuesday 18 September 18h TAH)
Referee: George TIME (SOL)
Assistant Referee 1: Avinesh NARAYAN (FIJ)
Assistant Referee 2: Jeremy GARAE (VAN)
Fourth Official: Salesh CHAND (FIJ)
Tahiti: 1. Josselin CAPEL (GK), 2. Matatini VERNAUDON, 3. Noah AUSSILLOUS, 4. Manatini SIENNE, 5. Manuarii VAHIRUA, 6. Sofiene BOUKROUMA, 7. Jason JONES, 8. Tekaki SANGUE, 9. Tehotu GITTON, 10. Tehauarii HOLOZET, 11. Clement TEHAHE, 14. Ariiura LABASTE, 15. Takai SCHMIT, 16. Terainui TETUANUI (GK), 17. Heihau HANERE, 18. Jeff HEUEA, 19. Keanu VERNAUDON
Suspended: 13. Denji KAIHA
Coach: Hermann AURENTZ (TAH)
New Zealand: 1. Alex PAULSEN (GK), 2. Max DRAKE, 3. Kris NAICKER, 4. Adam HILLIS, 5. Ryan VERNEY, 6. Campbell STRONG, 7. Marko STAMENI, 8. Jackson MANUEL, 9. Henry HAMILTON, 10. Joseph LEE, 11. Matt GARBETT, 12. Luca TAYLOR (GK), 13. Finn O’CONNOR, 14. Oskar VAN HATTUM, 15. Bradley WILSON, 16. Sean BRIGHT, 17. Nathan LOBO, 18. Benjamin OLD, 19. Hayden AISH, 20. Harry BARK
Coach: Josè FIGUEIRA (ENG)