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AUSTRALIA'S DEPARTURE FROM OCEANIA'S CONFEDERATION OPENED THE WAY FOR NEW ZEALAND TO RUN ROUGHSHOD OVER THE LIKES OF NEW CALEDONIA AND VANUATU AND MAKE a playoff against the fifth-place Asian side. That much was predictable; less anticipated was that the All Whites would beat Bahrain to clinch a spot in South Africa.
Now this squad made up largely of semiprofessionals (defender Ryan Nelsen is the only one who plays regularly for a top-league team) will take on world champion Italy come June. For a nation of four million, getting this far is already an achievement, and coach Ricki Herbert's crew is bound to run away with the underdog vote.
Yet New Zealand is not just along for the ride. Last summer's Confederations Cup showed that the team at least belonged on the same field with top opponents. New Zealand even put three past Italy in a friendly before the competition (granted, Italy scored four).
In the ultimate rugby nation, the All Whites have a golden opportunity to preach the gospel of a different sport. The fact that they'll get the game on New Zealand TV and in the papers is an achievement. Anything beyond that is gravy.
Shane Smeltz is an unselfish forward with a knack for finding space. He's joined up front by Chris Killen, a consistent scorer in the English lower divisions whose career has been slowed by injuries. Rory Fallon, the scoring hero against Bahrain, waits in the wings.
Simon Elliott, who'll be 36 when the World Cup begins, has played at home, in the Premier League and in MLS but has been prone to injury. Don't expect much running at his age; he'll be the guy to spread the ball and try to keep possession. Steady Tim Brown lines up alongside, with the speedy Leo Bertos out wide.
The partnership of Nelsen—who was out for six weeks with a knee injury earlier this year—and Ben Sigmund is quite solid, and the back line is arguably New Zealand's strength. Tony Lochhead patrols the left flank. Mark Paston is bound to be among the busiest goalies in the tournament.