Football: All Whites World Cup qualifying opponents revealed

New Zealand's Chris Wood celebrates his goal during the 2016 OFC Nations Cup, Semi Final. Photo / Shane Wenzlick /
New Zealand's Chris Wood celebrates his goal during the 2016 OFC Nations Cup, Semi Final. Photo / Shane Wenzlick /

The next steps on the path to Russia 2018 have been laid out for the All Whites after the official draw for Stage 3 of Oceania qualifying for the FIFA World Cup was conducted today at OFC headquarters in Auckland.

Anthony Hudson's men will go in as the side to beat after winning the OFC Nations Cup - which acted as Stage 2 of the qualifying process - last month in Papua New Guinea.

New Zealand have been drawn with two countries they defeated on that march to the title, New Caledonia and Fiji, in Group A of the home-and-away series. Group B is made up of Nations Cup runners-up Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Tahiti.

Having defeated all comers at the Nations Cup, Hudson says he was not fazed about the identity of whichever opponents were drawn but is glad the preparations can now begin in earnest.

"We were open to playing any of the sides and were always going to prepare properly, whoever we faced," he says.

"More than anything, I think we're just pleased the draw has now been set and we can plan the rest of our campaign, we know who we're facing and can now plan accordingly."

The All Whites will meet New Caledonia, who they beat in the semi-finals of the Nations Cup, both home and away between November 7 and 15 of this year, before doing likewise against Fiji from March 20 to 28, 2017. New Zealand will have a bye for the rounds scheduled for June 5 to 13 as this window will be used to prepare for the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup, which takes place in Russia during June and July.

The top team in each group advances to a two-legged final - to be played between August 28 and September 5, 2017 - with the winner going on to meet the fifth-placed team from CONMEBOL, the South American confederation, for a place at Russia 2018.

One of the key features of the format is the chance for the All Whites to take the field on home soil - the first time they will have done so since a scoreless draw with South Africa at Auckland's Mt Smart Stadium on May 30, 2014.

It will be a special moment for Hudson as he yet to lead the team in front of the New Zealand public and is relishing the prospect.

"With the U-23s and the senior team, we've now played 16 games in the last 12 months and they've all been away," he says.

"We've been waiting for a long time to play here and I know the players are looking forward to it so I'm very excited."

The home-and-away nature of Stage 3 will make it a very different proposition to the condensed tournament format of the Nations Cup, where all matches were played at one venue in Port Moresby in just over two weeks.

"It will be a lot easier because some of the games will be at home. That will make a difference to the conditions, the pitch and the ability to train - there's a lot of factors in there that will be different," Hudson says.

"Tournament football is always very unique anyway, you're using a whole squad and are away for a long time so this will be quite separate from what happened in Papua New Guinea."

Having now had nearly a month to reflect on the Nations Cup with the rest of his coaching staff, Hudson is proud of what the team achieved in lifting the trophy for the first time since 2008.

"We were missing six or seven starting players so to go to a tournament like that and still be consistent was a big achievement. Four years ago, we came third and this year we won it so it was a huge success," he says.
"We now look forward to continuing to build the squad and making sure we're ready for next year."

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