New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert admits his players are jumping at the chance to take on Australia at the MCG tomorrow but has reminded them it marks only the start of their 2010 FIFA World Cup™ journey.
Tomorrow's clash marks the first time the traditional rivals have met in a football match in nearly five years and Herbert said the occasion has been highly-anticipated by both the players and the growing legion of New Zealand football fans.
But he sees it as much more important in terms of both teams' build-up for the World Cup in South Africa. "It's been a while since we've had a game against Australia. I think in context of us both going to the World Cup, it's a really fitting opportunity for the nations to come together," he said. "It's an ideal chance to get us both back on the pitch."
New Zealand captain Ryan Nelsen said there was a strong rivalry between the two teams despite the lack of recent encounters. But he too is maintaining his focus on the World Cup. "There is a big rivalry. We all know the Australian players really well and they know us, they are all a good bunch of guys. They understand and so do we that it's just the first stage of what is going to a really important five weeks. It's a big game, and we want to do well, but the performance is the most important thing," the Blackburn defender said.
Herbert has only had limited time with his squad which contains several new faces. Having only had a few days with some of his players since that memorable qualification win over Bahrain, he expects the team to be a little rusty. "I think for us, we haven't played since November 14 as a collective group of players. We had a match in Mexico which had a lot of new faces. So for us, it's really just getting back on the pitch again and getting playing again. There will be mistakes and we can work on those as we lead toward the World Cup. The players are dead set keen to get this campaign under way," he said.
Time to get down to business
While New Zealand, which is currently ranked 78, would love a win over the 20th-ranked Australians, Herbert will be looking beyond the result as he looks to work out his best 11 for the first match against Slovakia in Rustenburg on 15 June. "I think if you look at it in isolation, it would be an extremely good result for us, Australia are well ranked and have beaten some very good sides of recent times but at the end of the day, we want to be right for Slovakia," he said. "If we take a few hits along the way we can deal with that. We have to be ready, no doubt like Australia should be."
Herbert says he has close to his full 23 to select and he is set to use his full quota of six substitutions during tomorrow's game. However, the starting XI is set to closely resemble the one he took into the match against Bahrain in Wellington last November. "It's time to get down to the business side of things. There's 23 players, who will be desperate come June 15 to be part of that starting XI," he said. "We haven't been in the position of having a quality 23 players to pick from for a long time, but that's healthy. To have a group, with so many playing well and understanding where we're going, certainly has some favour in it."