Wednesday 20 March 2019, 06:29

Percival leads NZ’s youthful veteran brigade

  • Ria Percival is one of several New Zealanders with over 100 caps

  • At just 29, Percival is the nation’s most-capped player

  • Football Ferns head to France 2019 chasing maiden knockout-stage qualification

Few teams, if any, will be able to match New Zealand at the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019™ for pure experience.

Seven active players have accrued over a century of caps, with Rosie White just a couple of matches away, while Sarah Gregorius and Hannah Wilkinson are also closing in on the landmark.

Leading the way is ever-reliable fullback Ria Percival. Most of the 100-club crew have now passed 30, but Percival, despite seemingly having been around for an eternity, is still only 29. Fresh-faced and with a metronome-like quality up and down the flank, Percival certainly doesn’t seem like a player entering the twilight of her playing career.

New Zealand’s 100-club (active players)

Ria Percival 138 appearances Abby Erceg 134 Amber Hearn 125 Ali Riley 122 Katie Duncan 121 Annalie Longo 112 Betsy Hassett 110

Most of that septet have enjoyed career that have straddled New Zealand’s major tournament experience of the modern era. When the Football Ferns qualified for the 2007 Women’s World Cup, it ended a 16-year drought from the main stage. And they have failed to miss a major tournament since China 2007, featuring in every subsequent Women’s World Cup and Women’s Olympic Football Tournament.

Percival was there every step of the way, debuting on the world stage in 2007 against China as a wide-eyed 17-year-old. She still regards the match against the hosts in front of 60,000 fans as a “never forget” moment.

Skip forward to the present day and Percival and many of her team-mates will take that hard-earned global experience to France 2019.

“I think having so many games under my belt going into a tournament helps,” Percival told “Experience is of course good going into any tournament for any team.

“It really helps having so many players on so many caps with the experience and knowledge that we all have, so that is a real positive.”

New Zealand head to France aiming for a landmark achievement at a Women’s World Cup: qualification for the knockout stage. It is a feat they achieved previously at the London 2012 Olympic Games.

The New Zealanders’ task will be far from easy, with European champions the Netherlands, perennial challengers Canada and a dynamic Cameroon all standing in their way.

“There is a hunger from all of us to really make an impact, get out of the group stage and see how far we can go,” said the West Ham United defender. “Obviously you go into every game wanting to win, so we are going to push as hard as we can and see how we go.

“Our group is pretty similar to last time which is good for us in that we know the opposition and what they can do, so for us it’s a matter of getting the right game plans. It is a good opportunity for us.”

New Zealand women’s football is riding high on the back of the U-17 national team’s success late last year. The team unexpectedly claimed third place at Uruguay 2018 following a stellar World Cup run that included getting the better of highly regarded Japan.

“It was massive for NZ women’s football,” Percival says with a smile, thinking back to memories of the senior side watching the U-17 tournament on laptops during their own Women’s World Cup qualifiers in New Caledonia.

“For such a young age group to do it, it shows the growth we could have moving forward. It [this era] is a really good opportunity for us.

“We are now starting to see younger age groups starting to develop at a higher level compared to maybe five years ago.”