The OFC Champions League Group Stage is drawing nearer and our focus on the competing clubs continues as we shine the spotlight on Tahiti’s AS Pirae.
AS Pirae will be the other Tahiti representative in this year’s edition of the OFC Champions League eight years after their first and only final.
The club is determined to make maximum impact on the tournament with the desire to go one step further than 2006’s runners-up finish.
To gain the upper hand AS Pirae have signed nine players involved in the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in Tahiti last year.
The additional international experience, albeit gained on the sands of Papeete, will be valuable where big match pressure and high expectations are now second nature.
Two of those players – Raimoana and Naea Bennett – have previous experience of the OFC Champions League to call on.
The jewel in the AS Pirae crown is the signing of 2005 OFC Player of the Year and former professional Marama Vahirua.
Vahirua enjoyed a storied club career in France and Greece and made his international debut for Tahiti at the FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil last year.
An attacking and creative force able to prise open the most stubborn defences, Vahirua is also expected to have a big input in the recruitment and tactical the club hopes to take in Fiji in April.
As AS Pirae look to the future, they have a past that promised much but was all too fleeting.
In 2005, as one of two host-clubs that also included AS Manu Ura, ‘Oranges’ reached the semi-finals after finishing three points a one loss behind future winners and Hyundai A-League club Sydney FC in the group stage.
Their stand-out performance was a 1-0 win over New Zealand’s Auckland City FC thanks to a Raimoana Bennett goal.
Thrashing Sobou guaranteed passage to the semi-final but the journey ended there at the hands of New Caledonian rivals AS Magenta.
AS Pirae, dejected at the comprehensive manner of their exit, lost the third placed match 3-1 to Tafea FC.
That first tournament and vowing to learn from their experiences quickly meant a fresh approach to the OFC Club Championships in New Zealand with much different objectives.
The club brought in Samoa international striker Desmond Fa’aiuaso and New Caledonian midfield maestro Jose Hmae.
Wins over Marist of the Solomon Islands and Sobou of Papua New Guinea meant a second successive semi-final despite a 1-0 defeat to Auckland City FC.
Two quick goals in their last four showdown with tournament debutants YoungHeart Manawatu handed ‘Oranges’ a 2-1 victory and propelled the side to its first ever final.
Losing Naea Bennett – who bagged five goals in the previous four matches – due to his religious belief of not playing on a Sunday stripped AS Pirae of its most influential figure for the final at North Harbour Stadium with Auckland City FC.
The responsibility of getting AS Pirae over the line as tournament winners fell to Jose Hmae who struggled in the non-stop rain and heavy pitch to reach his usual high standards.
The Tahitian dream foundered after a hat-trick from former South Africa international, the late Keryn Jordan.
Desmond Fa’aiuaso scored a late consolation for AS Pirae but it was not enough as Auckland City FC secured their first ever OFC club title, the first of five championships.
AS Pirae never quite recovered their domestic dominance and their absence from the OFC Champions League of eight years belies their abilities during what shaped as a golden age for the club.
This time AS Pirae open their tournament against Solomon Islands champions Solomon Warriors on April 9.
The Tahitians re-establish their Samoan-connection when they clash with OFC Champions League Preliminary winners Kiwi FC on April 12.
Their final group match on April 15 is sure to capture the imagination when they tackle last year’s runners-up Waitakere United, their first encounter with Kiwi opposition since that rain-soaked night at North Harbour Stadium in 2006.