On the sidelines at John Kerkhof park in Cambridge, Canadian football coach Nico Girard watches on as his WaiBOP women's team heads back to the changing rooms at half time.

It's the final game of the season with a downpour of rain lashing the players while thunder echoes in the distance.

At 0-all, there is still much to play for, but with the rain increasing in intensity and lightning strikes nearby, the referees call a halt to proceedings, and in that, the season for the WaiBOP women's team.

They finish with seven points, two wins and a draw to go with their nine defeats.

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Fast forward nine months to August 2020, and Girard finds himself back for a new season as the head coach of the WaiBOP women, in the unfamiliar Covid-19 world.

With football continuing to be disrupted across the country. This season the national women's league will consist of only a single round-robin followed by a grand final on the weekend of December 19.

And while Girard has already begun preparations for his second season at the helm of WaiBOP, he still feels there is a lack of high expectations around the league in New Zealand and what it should represent for the players.

"For me, when you look at a club and you look down the ages and stages of football such as social football and then federation football you should be able to tell that they are from the one club, but there should be some sort of differentiation whether it be the level of training or playing," Girard said.

Nico will have a strong focus on player retention for the region. Photo / Photosport
Nico will have a strong focus on player retention for the region. Photo / Photosport

"So if National Women's League is considered the top of the pyramid, it should be a different look than club football, but some players come into it assuming it is equal or on par so there are expectations that may be lower than my own."

"The Waikato, and New Zealand has huge potentional and opportunity here, it's great to be here and see it, it just needs a bit of work and I hope I can be a part of that."

While a lot of focus in football teams is around technical ability and tactics, Girard has a strong focus on communication between players and coaches.

"Each person you work with is different, so learning about them and what may be needed to move them up to a higher level, I have to ask questions of them and make them feel comfortable communicating with me."

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Girard and the small team of WaiBOP coaches in the community have set themselves the tasks of becoming more visible in the community, attending as many of the region's games as possible.

He said, coming from Canada, he has noticed a difference in culture between the countries when it comes down to football.

"Over here, I had the assumption that players would show up to training, and I wouldn't have to beg people to come. I've worked in environments where players are going to miss social events because the priority is football and once I've had football established I can look at where my free time is, but over here I quickly realised that was not the case."

"When individuals lack a pathway which is free of obstacles, their inspiration to continue in football is diminished. That is the case for females in football with lack of a pathway not only for players, but also coaches, and administrators in my humble opinion."

Stella Neems in action for WaiBOP against Capital last season. Photo / Photosport
Stella Neems in action for WaiBOP against Capital last season. Photo / Photosport

For a region the size of the Waikato and Bay of Plenty, the pool of players that come forward for both the National Women's League, and even the two Northern League clubs Hamilton Wanderers and Claudelands Rovers have been small.

"There is a problem around player retention after high school. If we can't retain the players after they leave high school or after a few years in the women's league, where they get burnt out, that creates a problem for us. In the men's there is a so much larger pool of players that you can have different men play for all the different codes of football."

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"In the girls' space that just doesn't exist, attracting players is important but retention is more important, in my opinion, because it shows that the programme is attractive and viable."

His comment echoes those of Sports Waikato CEO Matthew Cooper who told the Waikato News last month that player retention remains a key issue across all codes of sports.

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Girard said that a lot of New Zealand club programmes are based on individual coaches that as soon as they leave a programme, a lot of the players also leave.

"Over here we need it more to be about culture at the club and how the clubs can keep players, not have it based on individuals running certain programmes."

"I'm a big advocate for culture driven football. In Canada and the US we have hundreds of thousands of people playing football, but has it translated to global success in the men side, maybe not yet, but the culture is successful."

Girard said there are different ideas of what success will be this season, and that sometimes it can be misguided.

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"You can say success is that most of the younger girls are coming back again so that could be considered a success. The idea the squad is building because I see them for a month and a half and if we want to build we have to be working with them for 11 months of the year in reality."

"You obviously play sports to win, but there has to be more to it for us as well. At the end of the day, I'm not in this for the money or anything. If a player from our squad makes it on to the field for the Women's World Cup here in a couple of years and I've played a part in that journey well then that's good enough for me."