Ricki Herbert’s World Cup briefing: ‘Hay’s been smart in the lead-up’

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No one is better placed than All Whites legend Ricki Herbert to understand what it takes to reach the FIFA World Cup finals. He did it as a player in 1982 and as the coach of the New Zealand team that went undefeated at the 2010 finals.

Herbert will provide exclusive briefings for Friends of Football and the RHFA websites as New Zealand’s All Whites strive to reach the 2022 finals in Qatar. Here’s his first briefing …

By Ricki Herbert

As one of football’s smallest nations, it’s always tempting to focus on the problems facing our national teams.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the All Whites schedule of warm-up games; clubs won’t release key players outside of the international window; we haven’t got the resources to bring our players together as often as we want; some players are carrying injuries.

Sure, it’s tough. But it hasn’t been easy for any of the eight teams that will battle out the Oceania FIFA World Cup qualifying tournament in Qatar (March 18-31).

Looking at how the teams line up, and the preparations they have had, there’s probably never been a better-prepared New Zealand squad than the 2022 edition, led by head coach Danny Hay.

Hay has been smart. He’s turned obstacles to his advantage.

While COVID-19 disrupted the plans of all the nations preparing for the qualifiers, Hay gained a competitive advantage.

He and NZ Football lined up fixtures when and where they could, and that turned out to be at venues in Bahrain, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Hay even set up his temporary home and work base in Abu Dhabi, figuring it was better than commuting to and from a New Zealand with closed borders.

Playing friendlies in the region provided the staff and players with a taste of what it will be like to play in Qatar where the qualifying tournament takes place and, hopefully, where New Zealand will get to play the intercontinental play-off in mid-June.

To put things into perspective, the distance between Dubai and Abu Dhabi from the Qatar capital, Doha, is about the same as Auckland-Wellington. Bahrain is less than 400kms from Doha.

The All Whites played friendlies in temperatures in the high 20s, similar to what they will face at the qualifying tournament.

No other Oceania squad has had the benefit of playing warm-up games in similar conditions and against teams with top 100 FIFA rankings.

Imagine if New Zealand goes into the intercontinental play-off, having played five qualifying games in Qatar, as well as three friendly games in the same region?

They’ll likely be facing a Panama or Costa Rica side wary of playing in unfamiliar territory and the All Whites will have experience of coping with hot and humid conditions as they train and play.

‘New Zealand’s group rivals should hold few fears’

Meanwhile, New Zealand’s group rivals for the qualifiers should hold few fears though Hay and his staff have no doubt done their homework and will not underestimate their opponents.

Fiji, Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia are preparing their squads — under-resourced, unfamiliar with Qatar and with a fraction of the experience within the current All Whites squad. Some of the island nations at the qualifiers were introducing players to each other when they gather in Qatar.

The Cook Islands coach, Alan Taylor, had not even met some of his squad, or seen them play, before he selected them.

This New Zealand team is big on players who thrive on pressure, week in and week out, in their professional environment. Many of them were in the Olywhites squad who performed well at last year’s Tokyo Olympics, where they experienced tournament play and the need to manage energy levels over a couple of weeks.

Hay has done well so far as New Zealand’s head coach, making the most of the fact he’s only the second New Zealand-born national coach in our history.

He’s fuelled the passion for wearing the fern and the white shirt, gaining commitment from veterans such as Winston Reid, Michael Boxall and Chris Wood.

Remember, Wood insisted on joining the New Zealand squad for their January match against Jordan while he was in the midst of settling his reported £25 million transfer to Newcastle United. How easy it would have been to pass on the Jordan game, to keep his new club happy.

No. That’s not what Wood and these Kiwis are about, and I truly hope they’ll join the 1982 and 2010 All Whites as the next team to defy the odds and go to the greatest football show of all.

Good luck to Hay, his staff and players.

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Fixture schedule

All dates/times are New Zealand Time

Group A

Friday March 18 (3am): Cook Islands v Solomon Islands

Friday March 18 (6am): Tahii v Vanuatu

Monday March 21 (3am): Cook Islands v Tahiti

Monday March 21 (6am): Solomon Islands v Vanuatu

Friday March 25 (3am): Vanuatu v Cook Islands

Friday March 25 (3am): Solomon Islands v Tahiti

Group B

Saturday March 19 (3am): Papua New Guinea v New Zealand (Qatar SC Stadium, Doha)

Saturday March 19 (6am): New Caledonia v Fiji

Tuesday March 22 (3am): Papua New Guinea v New Caledonia

Tuesday March 22 (6am): New Zealand v Fiji (Qatar SC Stadium, Doha)

Friday March 25 (6am): New Zealand v New Caledonia (Qatar SC Stadium, Doha)

Friday March 25 (6am): Fiji v Papua New Guinea

Semi-finals

Monday March 28: Winner Group A v runners-up Group B; winner Group B v runners-up Group A

Final

March 31: Final*

*FIFA has agreed to the final being played one day outside of their March international window.

Intercontinental Play-off

June 14/15, 2022

If New Zealand wins the Oceania qualifying tournament, the All Whites will face a winner-takes-all showdown with whichever nation has finished fourth in the North & Central American and Caribbean qualifiers.

The match will be staged in Qatar on June 14 or 15 (NZT).

FIFA World Cup finals

November/December 2022

Thirty-two nations will gather in Qatar to contest the World Cup finals.