Onwards and upwards for new-look Kiwis
Good things, they say, come to those that wait. For New Zealand coach Anthony Hudson, the wait must have seemed interminable. But the pay-off, when it arrived, was richly rewarding.
That dividend came in the form of a victorious campaign at the OFC Nations Cup last month, as New Zealand regained their status as continental kings following an underwhelming semi-final exit in 2012. Aside from earning a ticket to the FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017, the All Whites collected a remarkable 54-place rise on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking to 93. Aside from being the globe’s highest move for the month, it is New Zealand’s best position for three years.
Hudson was appointed in August 2014 in the wake of New Zealand’s failed tilt at 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualification, which ended with a hefty defeat against Mexico in the intercontinental play-off. The Kiwis, however, took to the field just six times over nearly two years in the lead-up to the recent Nations Cup. Despite the lack of preparation, New Zealand secured their fifth continental crown, also earning passage to the third stage of Russia 2018 qualifying in the process. Victory was secured in the form of a penalty shoot-out win over hosts Papa New Guinea following 120 tense scoreless minutes in the final, following on from four successive wins earlier in the tournament.
New Zealand’s defensive solidity, and team cohesion without the ball, were both prominent facets of their play in PNG. Indeed, the team have conceded just six goals in ten outings since Hudson’s opening 3-1 loss against Uzbekistan, a match which was played just weeks after the London-born coach assumed the reins.
World Cup focus The next step is World Cup qualifiers where New Zealand have been drawn with two countries they defeated on that march to the Nations Cup title, New Caledonia and Fiji, in Group A of the home-and-away series. The winner will face the top team in Group B - comprised of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Tahiti – for the right to face South America’s fifth-ranked nation.
Now with Stage 3 Oceania World Cup matches commencing in November, and several other international matches being planned, Hudson’s charges have the opportunity to belatedly build momentum. And in the wake of the Nations Cup, Hudson says he now has depth within the squad, laying a platform for further growth ahead of both the Confederations Cup and Russia 2018 campaign.
“Now we have a real squad to pick from,” Hudson told FIFA.com. “You can’t keep driving standards unless you have competition within the group, and now we have that so I’m really pleased. Everyone within the group believes we can do something together. The young players that came in for the Nations Cup are with us now, they are good enough. We have a really good mix now.”
Building depth New Zealand were missing “six or seven first-team players” for the Nations Cup according to Hudson, with the list of absentees headlined by captain Winston Reid and veteran striker Shane Smeltz, as well as well-regarded lesser known names such as Ryan Thomas and Deklan Wynne.
Natural attrition since the last World Cup cycle means New Zealand’s side is littered with fresh faces or players with limited big-match experience. Indeed, the majority of the All Whites’ team for the Nations Cup final were aged 23 or under.
“Every time we got together, we had to keep starting with basics, because we had so many new players," Hudson said. "We also didn’t have our best players all the time, and the Nations Cup was a perfect example. It really affects your ability to have cohesion and build momentum because there was too big a gap between games.”
New Zealand is still some way off their all-time global high of 49 set in 2002, but Hudson believes his side are firmly on an upward trajectory. “Now for the first time that I have been here, I have choices to make ,” he said. “Those problems have been solved now. In fact it has added to the character of the players and the staff to have gone through all that. We have got stronger together, and it is now part of our story.”