Blenheim's Lansdowne Park, Marlborough rugby's headquarters since 1930, is the unlikely setting for a landmark football match on Sunday.
For the first time since their inception last season, the New Zealand King Salmon Nelson Marlborough Falcons will play an official national youth league game in Marlborough. They competed in a pre-season tournament in Blenheim in early December, but this time ASB Youth League competition points are up for grabs. The Falcons have never played a regular season home game outside of Nelson's Trafalgar Park, where they are unbeaten.
The Falcons have made a flying start to the new season, scoring a 2-0 win in Dunedin over last year's finalists Southern United last weekend, and start as firm favourites on Sunday. They face competition newcomers Heartland Wairarapa, who lost 4-0 at home to a very powerful Team Wellington lineup first up, the match beginning at 2pm.
Four Marlborough-based players feature in the Falcons squad. Omar Guardiola, Taine Swete and Carl Connor-McClean saw game time in Dunedin and have been named in the starting lineup for Sunday, while Tore Waechter, one of the squad's four over-age players, is yet to be called on. Only two over-age players are able to be included on match day, with keeper and captain Coey Turipa and midfielder Ryan Stewart selected so far.
Guardiola and Swete were standouts for the side in their inaugural season and continued their good form during the first foray of the new campaign, Guardiola setting up the first goal for debutant Josh Lis and scoring the second himself.
Eighteen-year-old Swete was pleased with the first-up victory, especially with such a new-look starting lineup.
"For a first hit out I was really happy with how the boys played. I was actually quite surprised with how well it worked at times. It wasn't the prettiest football, the conditions were wet and cold, but to get two goals in the first half then shut up shop . . . it was good to be able to do that."
The hard-working midfielder is looking forward to playing in his home town on Sunday, especially given the travel involved in training and playing over the hill.
"It's going to be good playing in Blenheim. It's a new thing, so I really hope a good crowd comes out to get behind us."
While it's early days, Swete is happy with his fitness levels and form so far, plus that of his team-mates.
"Omar is great to play with. Every team needs one player like him. His value is hard to describe . . . he's just so goal hungry and always performs.
"Carl had a good debut on the wing. He's come in to a new team with a new coach and a new style of play . . . I think he's adapted really well."
He was also impressed with the efforts of new striker Lis, who was a constant danger down south. He will be a player worth watching on Sunday as he builds a combination up front with the livewire Guardiola.
Despite Wairarapa's inauspicious opening, Swete is wary of the danger the North Islanders pose.
"I'm sure they will be a strong outfit. We don't know much about each other . . . it will be a hard battle," he predicts.
Wairarapa have had a harrowing start to their campaign. The side's original coach, Miroslav Tvaroh, who had spent the previous few months preparing his side for their first foray into the top level of age grade football, was found dead on seaside rocks near Castlepoint on December 26.
His friend, experienced Wairarapa United coach Phil Keinzley, has taken over the youth team's reins and has been hugely impressed by the resilience shown by the players after the tragedy.
"Both the team and myself have had to learn about ourselves in very short time," he said.
Following their first-up loss he was realistic about their efforts.
"We did alright in the first half, but lost our shape in the second. Our depth and skill levels were exposed."
He expects better on Sunday.
"We have no injury concerns, the team is looking good to go."
Players to watch, according to coach Keinzley, are striker Kurt Mildenhall, 15-year-old midfielder Liam Hare and keepers Sam Martin and Kieran Spargo.
Falcons' coach Davor Tavich said the Blenheim boys in the team were "very excited about playing at home". He is in no doubt about the Falcons' target on Sunday.
"We are looking for another three points. Also, we want to put on a show for the Blenheim fans and those that travel from Nelson."
Nelson Marlborough Falcons: Coey Turipa, Harry Tod-Smith, Josh Sansom, Fox Slotemaker, Josh Moffat, Furkan Kokcu, Taine Swete, Ryan Stewart, Carl Connor-McClean, Josh Lis, Omar Guardiola. Subs: Matt Tod-Smith, Logan de Joux, Sam Wilson, Dan Grimshaw, David Maisey, Levi Waddington. Head coach: Davor Tavich. Assistant coach: Mark Johnston. Team manager: Fiona Wilson. Physio: David Donga.
Heartland Wairarapa: Sam Martin, Hamish McLachlan, Josh Ebert, James Craughwell, Patrick O'Keefe, Arnon Tapp, Liam Hare, Pedro Garcias, Kurtis Paine, Michael Fraser, Kurt Mildenhall. Subs: James Marsh, Stephen Thomas, Jaga Scott-Greenfield, Josh McMenamin, Kieran Spargo. Coach Phil Keinzley. Manager Peter Cox. Kick off 2pm.
- The Marlborough Express