Stirling Sports Premiership 2016-17 Q&A: What we made of the new-look competition
The 2016-17 Stirling Sports Premiership has reached the playoffs stage, with semifinals set for Saturday and Sunday.
Auckland City, Hawke's Bay United, Team Wellington and Waitakere United have made it, while everyone else will have to watch.
With the regular season in the bag, here's what Stuff's football writers made of it.
What has been the best thing about this season?
Andrew Voerman (Hamilton): The close competition for the playoff spots. It helped maintain interest throughout the season, and even if the mish-mash scheduling did make things look even tighter for long stretches, there was a genuine battle taking place and all four semifinalists would be worthy of becoming champions.
Brendon Egan (Christchurch): The quality of the overseas players. From the long-range goals and back flips of Southern United's Irishman Eric Molloy to the fantastic goalkeeping of Eastern Suburbs' Silvio Rodic and Hawke's Bay's Josh Hill, the quality of overseas players has been pleasantly surprising. These chaps are popular with the crowd and community and inspire New Zealand players to lift their play and become better.
Liam Hyslop (Wellington): The competitiveness. Although the top five teams broke clear in the end, anyone could beat anyone on their day for most of the season (see Tasman taking points off Eastern Suburbs and Auckland City). The lesser teams dropped away when they were out of contention, but the overall feel was one of excitement.
Phillip Rollo (Nelson): The close competition. Just a few points have separated the top seven throughout much of the season and the semifinalists were only decided in the final round. Any of the top four could go on and win the title from here.
Tasman United drew good crowds, which is a rare sight in this league. PHILLIP ROLLO/FAIRFAX NZ
What was the worst thing about this season?
AV: Treatment of referees. Whether it was sexist remarks made towards Anna-Marie Keighley, Brett Angell going off his rocker almost every week, Finlay Milne saying referees weren't mature enough, Paul Ifill saying Keighley was out of her depth, or any of the countless minor displays of dissent, it wasn't good.
BE: Hard to go past the ugly scenes at Wellington's David Farrington Park in January, which resulted in Hawke's Bay United coach Brett Angell and midfielder Cory Chettleburgh both copping four-match bans. It makes it difficult to promote the league and attract sponsors when that kind of behaviour is happening.
LH: Having head-to-head as the tiebreaker. It ruined what would have been an enthralling end to the regular season with Team Wellington chasing goals to go top of the league. It seems fairer in a World Cup-type situation with four teams playing one round of games, not a 10-team, two-round competition, where goal difference is the way to go.
PR: Hardly anyone is watching. Tasman United led the way when it came to attendance, averaging around 1000 spectators per game, yet they were one of the weakest teams in the league. Some of the more established sides need to significantly improve their community engagement for the competition to take a step forward.
Was expansion a good thing or a bad thing, and should there be more of it?
AV: I think 10 teams is two teams too many, even if Eastern Suburbs and Tasman United have both been valuable additions, Suburbs because they give the league another Auckland outlet, and another one that will pick New Zealanders; Tasman because they have pulled decent crowds, something this competition sorely needs. It is existing clubs who let the competition down, and when plans for 2018-19 onwards are announced at the end of this month, I would like to see everyone's place under review.
BE: Eastern Suburbs and Tasman United have both been exciting additions to the competition in their first year. Tasman's loyal supporters have been unwavering with their support, given their lack of success until late in the season. Ten teams is enough for me. New Zealand doesn't have the playing depth to sustain more than that.
LH: A good thing. You could see the progression Tasman made over the season, while Eastern Suburbs were contenders. The only disappointment was Hamilton dropping away, but overall it was good for the league. Leave it as it is for now and see how those teams go next season before any further expansion.
PR: Expansion has been a success so far. Eastern Suburbs have added quality and Tasman United have added a new audience. But 10 teams is enough for now and further expansion would just dilute the quality of the competition.
Emiliano Tade has remained an influential figure for Auckland City. DAVID JOSEPH/PHOTOTEK.NZ
Who was the most impressive foreigner?
AV: Eastern Suburbs stopper Silvio Rodic was one of four excellent foreign keepers in the league, and though his team couldn't make the top four, he certainly did his utmost to get them there. I could have gone with any of a dozen players here, which shows just how much influence foreigners have in this league - is it perhaps too much?
BE: Hawke's Bay's English midfielder Saul Halpin. He's made an impact in every match I've seen him play and is second-equal on the goalscoring chart with 12 strikes. His strong form has helped Hawke's Bay punch above their weight against the bigger spenders and secure a finals berth.
LH: Does Tom Jackson from Team Wellington count? He was born in England and has impressed in winning the Golden Boot, scoring a goal a game. Outside of him, it's hard to go past Emiliano Tade at Auckland City. He has such a strong influence over every game he plays in.
PR: There's still no player better than Auckland City's midfield maestro Albert Riera. One of the smartest tacklers in the league, the way he can link play between defence and attack is a thing of beauty. The 33-year-old Spaniard is a player every team in New Zealand, including the Wellington Phoenix, would want in their starting XI.
Who was the most impressive All Whites contender?
AV: Auckland City midfielder Clayton Lewis, who missed the start of the season while trialling in England, but didn't let his failure there get him down. In a team that has looked more predictable than usual at times, his willingness to run with the ball in an attacking midfield role has been a difference maker. One hopes he might not be present next season, but for good reasons, not bad.
BE: Clayton Lewis has done plenty for Auckland City this season and taken his play to another level. He's one of only two premiership players in Anthony Hudson's latest All Whites' squad to face Fiji and is likely to command interest from overseas if he gets more playing time on the international stage.
LH: Aaron Clapham. I'd go as far to say he'd be my league MVP. He carried that Canterbury team in so many games, netting 12 goals along the way.
PR: Aaron Clapham remains the beating heart of Canterbury United and though a recall to the All Whites appears extremely unlikely, the skillful midfielder remains the best Kiwi in a competition that national team coach Anthony Hudson continues to select players from. Although many have come from the penalty spot, Clapham's haul of 12 goals put him right in the mix for the Golden Boot.
Team Wellington are our writers' favourite to take out the title. PHOTOSPORT
Who's going to win the title?
AV: At the halfway stage I said Team Wellington, and I haven't seen anything to change my mind. If it's Hawke's Bay they play, they'll be fine, and I'd back them to atone for their two losses to Auckland City as well, with their combined firepower too much for the Navy Blues' staunch defence. If that game were to be at Kiwitea St, I'd give City the edge, but (if it happens) it will be at QBE Stadium, which could be key.
BE: Auckland City. The Navy Blues have stuttered through the season and been well below their best. Come finals time, I expect them to deliver the kind of football they're capable of and win another title. They have too many seasoned performers not to fire when it counts.
LH: Team Wellington. They're coming in hot with seven straight wins (if you count the OFC Champions League), are scoring goals for fun, and have a sense of timing about them.
PR: Team Wellington will go back-to-back. They have too much firepower up front with Tom Jackson and Ben Harris scoring for fun in a season where Auckland City have been surprisingly inconsistent.
What is one wish you have for next season?
AV: Where to start? I'll go with the easiest, which is for players to show more respect towards each other and officials, and for NZ Football to take active steps to give publicity to players who don't. Two captains were reprimanded for bringing the game into disrepute this season, and we would have never known had I not chanced my arm and asked about them on spec. Public shaming isn't great, but if nothing else works, it's worth a shot.
BE: The bad language from players and lack of respect towards referees must be stamped out of the game. No sport is perfect, but both have happened far too regularly this season. With budding young footballers watching at the ground or on the box, it's unacceptable and sets a very poor example.
LH: Continuity. There can be a tendency to want to change for the sake of change. The competition works well in its current format.
PR: New Zealand Football finds a way to make the Wellington Phoenix reserves eligible for the semifinals. If they're worried about OFC Champions League qualification, just give that reward to the next best team.