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Women's World Cup: Kerr misses her own party while Wilkinson steps into Eden

When Australia coach Tony Gustavsson and his captain Sam Kerr sat in the press conference the day before their opening match against Ireland, they knew that Kerr would not be fit to play. A calf strain means that the captain will not be available until the final group game against Canada, at the earliest. He’d made a decision to wait until the day of the match so as not to tip off their opponents.

Despite the wave of disappointment throughout and while clearly missing the prolific forward’s presence, on the pitch, the Matildas did not need her. Their encounter with World Cup debutants, Ireland was bruising but a 52-minute penalty from Steph Catley settled what was, to put it diplomatically, a combative affair.

The Irish walked off the pitch following during a practice match earlier in the week with Colombia, complaining of the over-physicality of their opponents, after seeing their captain Denise O’Sullivan taken to hospital after a nasty foul. O’Sullivan recovered to start this game and there was a sense of irony given the way Ireland prosecuted their first game in a World Cup.

Coach Vera Pauw, set up her team to play deep and disrupt the hosts. It would be an oversimplification to say that they wanted a war but Ireland played their part in what was a very physical, chaotic encounter that was no less entertaining for it. In view of the gap in the rankings between the two teams and the likely wave of momentum that the hosts would enjoy, it made perfect sense for the Irish to make life difficult and bring some pain to proceedings and it wasn't a dirty or spiteful game, just full-blooded, as befitting a match of this significance.

And the Matildas were no shrinking violets. The home side was more than capable of rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck in. The game was exemplified by the running individual contest between Ireland wingback Katie McCabe and Australian winger Hayley Raso. It was Raso who was fouled for the penalty by Marissa Sheva.

After the penalty, the Irish were committed and could have conceded a second. But Australia was forced to suffer a succession of Ireland corners, a deflected free kick from Megan Connolly and a late flurry of chances from McCabe and Louise Quinn.

Australia’s next match is against Nigeria who, as I write this, have just held out for a 0-0 draw against one of the pre-tournament favourites, Canada. It’s foolish to predict but after having prevailed against Ireland the co-hosts of the tournament must be confident of settling qualification by the time they get to Canada, who in turn must face this tough Irish team.

Triumph and Tragedy in Auckland

Hannah Wilkinson’s beautifully taken strike sealed New Zealend’s maiden World Cup win in front of a cold but enthusiastic home crowd at Eden Park, Auckland, against Norway. The Melbourne City striker was a clear threat to the Norwegian’s ponderous defense and finally capitalised on a lovely cross from Jacqui Hand who scampered down the wing to set up her teammate. Ria Percival had the chance to double the score in the 90th minute but hit the crossbar from the penalty spot.

The scenes of joy and relief from the players at the final whistle had extra meaning in view of the ghastly and shocking events in the city of Auckland earlier in the day when two people were shot by a lone gunman. It was a day the city will never forget.

For Norway, the result is a further mark of this former giant of women’s football’s decline. The former world champions boast some of the best-attacking players in the world but not even Ade Hegeberg and Caroline Graham Hansen can make up for their creaky defending, sluggish midfield and overall lack of purpose.

There were hopes that under new coach Hege Riise a corner might be turned, following the humiliation of Euro 22. Those hopes seem massively premature and unless there is a significant improvement you cannot rule out the possibility of the quarter-finalists from the last World Cup will be going home at the group stage.

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