All Whites striker Chris Wood believes the team is on the right trajectory, even if it might mean some short-term pain at the expense of results.
Off the back of Saturday’s target="_blank">2-0 loss to Greece, New Zealand take on Ireland in Dublin on Wednesday morning (8.45am).
It’s another tough assignment, in front of a crowd expected to exceed 40,000.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the All Whites played European countries or other big nations only once every few years, as part of the intercontinental playoffs or at the Fifa Confederations Cup (1999, 2003, 2009 and 2017).
That’s all changed. Since missing out on the 2022 World Cup at the hands of Costa Rica last June, the All Whites have faced Australia (world No 27) three times, along with Sweden (23), Greece (51), Qatar (61) and DR Congo (65), while Ireland are ranked 58th. That has made wins hard to come by, with the only victory in the last nine games coming in Wellington in March, as they prevailed 2-1 over China (79).
It’s a steep learning curve – but necessary.
“We are against teams that are ranked 50 places above us in the world rankings,” Wood said. “If we were just worried about results we would take teams in and around us or below us. But we want to challenge ourselves. And we want to get better and playing top opposition is the way to go about it.”
The schedule has been planned with the 2026 Fifa World Cup in mind, so the All Whites are more accustomed to the level if they get there.
“It’s a four-year process,” added Wood. “We need to start turning performances into wins [but] we are playing top opposition so it is as much about learning as it is about winning at the moment because, come the World Cup, if we are fortunate enough to get there, we will be playing these top teams and you need to be ready for that.
“So it is a balance of finding the right performances and breaking these good teams down but also winning games.”
Wednesday’s game is a return to where it all began for this current group, with the game in Dublin in November 2019. It was the first match of Danny Hay’s tenure, with debuts for the likes of Joe Bell, Elijah Just and Callum McCowatt, while Libby Cacace was making only his third appearance.
After taking an early lead, the All Whites lost 3-1 but impressed with their fluidity and verve in possession, on a scale that hadn’t been seen before. Since then the team has continued to evolve, via the impressive Tokyo Olympics campaign for most of them and the heartbreak in Doha against Costa Rica.
“Back then it was quite a few of the lads’ first or second tour,” said Wood. “We were a very young squad and since then they have played probably about 20 [games] now. They are getting the experience that is needed and starting to build into being fully fledged internationals now, not just prospects like when they started in 2019. So now it is about showing that on a bigger stage.”
On the comeback from a recent injury, 31-year-old Wood got through 45 minutes against Greece and is hopeful of an extended period on Wednesday.
“I want to play as long as I can for my national team, I love being a part of it.”
Michael Boxall and Nando Pijnaker are likely to come back into the mix as a central defensive pairing, while Max Crocombe is in line to start in goal after a difficult match for Michael Woud in Athens.
Michael Burgess has been a sports journalist since 2005, winning several national awards and covering Olympics, Fifa World Cups and America’s Cup campaigns. A football aficionado, Burgess will never forget the noise that greeted Rory Fallon’s goal against Bahrain in Wellington in 2009.