New Zealand have been a virtual ever-present at the various FIFA women’s tournaments in recent years, all the while showing marked improvement with each outing. It is to the 2006 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Russia that the Kiwis can trace back their modern history in this respect. That tournament marked 15 years since their previous FIFA women’s tournament - the first-ever senior FIFA Women’s World Cup™ in 1991.

Now the Junior Football Ferns are aiming to ensure that the FIFA Women's U-20 World Cup Japan 2012 marks another watershed in New Zealand football. Aaron McFarland’s charges will have to wait until 4 June, when the Official Draw takes place, to find the identity of their opponents. But in the meantime the class of 2012 are focussed on their own preparations, and they appear set to possess a potent attacking force.

Long-term building blocks
The New Zealanders' best showing was at Chile 2008 when they were only denied a berth in the knockout stage after conceding an equaliser deep into injury time against England. Qualification from the group stage at Japan 2012 would be a first for a New Zealand women’s side at a FIFA tournament but, should they fail to achieve that goal, it will not be for want of trying.

The squad will be thoroughly prepared having been based together in Auckland since January, training up to six days a week. These players will further hone their abilities with three testing warm-up matches over the coming weeks in the United States against LA Strikers, Pali Blues and finally, USA themselves - two-time world U-20 champions - in Los Angeles.

“Given the crossover in players between our team and the full Football Ferns side, opportunities like this to have the squad together and build cohesion and combinations are relatively rare, but extremely important,” said McFarland, who will head directly to the USA from Tahiti, where he hopes to taste OFC O-League glory this weekend in his other role with the Auckland City coaching staff.

Attacking options
New Zealand squads have invariably been renowned for their defensive organisation and work-rate, but the new crop are set to defy the stereotype given the quality of attacking outlets within the squad. Leading the charge is tall forward Hannah Wilkinson, who is set to form a formidable strike-force in combination with one-time OFC Player of the Year Rosie White.

Wilkinson, who is midway through a psychology degree, has developed rapidly since partaking in the last FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup, accruing a record-breaking goal tally in the New Zealand national league, as well becoming a regular with the senior national team. “I feel like I have improved,” Wilkinson told between lectures. “I guess that comes with increased experience and learning to deal with certain situations and pressure. It has all come together.”

The Whangarei-born Wilkinson will soon become the latest Kiwi footballer to enter the US college circuit when she takes up a scholarship at the University of Tennessee. For now though, the focus is on national team duties in the US over the coming weeks. Wilkinson, though, will have to make do without prolific strike-partner White who will miss the trip having suffered stress fractures in her foot. On the positive side for the Junior Football Ferns is the addition of New Zealand-born, Australia-raised defender Rebekah Stott, who is set to make her international debut after impressing in Australia’s W-League.

Wilkinson, along with White, Katie Bowen and Erin Naylor, bring considerable experience to the young squad after featuring to varying degrees at the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany. Little surprise then that Wilkinson thinks highly of the current crop, even if she is reluctant to be effusive in her praise. “It is quite a strong squad with quite a few graduates from the U-17s,” she says. “A really strong squad attacking-wise.”