By TERRY MADDAFORD
Cook Islands coach Alan Taylor spent much of yesterday trying to keep his players' feet on the ground as the Oceania minnows prepared for the game of their lives against New Zealand in the World Cup qualifiers today.
"We are trying to play the whole thing down," Taylor said. "It is a big challenge. New Zealand are the best team here and there are a lot of our players with New Zealand connections.
"We won't be going into the game expecting to win, but as long as we are competitive and can keep them to single figures, I'll be happy."
The All Whites and the Cooks meet in the second of today's third-round games at North Harbour Stadium, with the island nation staring down the barrel after 1-9 and 1-8 losses to the Solomons and Vanuatu in their opening matches.
"But we will not be going out to defend," said Taylor, who has been living in Rarotonga since 1994 after playing national league football at Papatoetoe in the early 80s. "We have done well early on in both games, but have died in the last 30 minutes.
"The fitness is just not there."
Against the Solomons, Niki Te-Miha gave the Cooks the lead after just four minutes. In their second outing, Junior Pukoku got his side back to 1-1 after 12 minutes.
In both games, the Cook Islanders conceded six goals in the second half.
"It is hard in a tournament like this," said Taylor, who with another New Zealander, Maurice Tillotson, the Cooks' technical director, has been responsible for the huge boost in popularity the sport is enjoying in that country.
"We have six players from Rarotonga, two from Australia and 10 from down here, but only three of them are playing in the top local competitions in Auckland or Wellington.
"Soccer has gone ahead of rugby as the No 1 sport, particularly on the outer islands, but whereas New Zealand might find 50 good players out of 5000, we are lucky to find five out of 500," Taylor said.
"But the players are enjoying it and there is a great team spirit."
Taylor is hoping the Cooks captain and best player, Joseph Chambers, will be fit for this afternoon's clash after missing Wednesday's game through injury.
All Whites coach Ken Dugdale has been caught in an off-field wrangle over replacement goalkeeper James Bannatyne.
At Sunday's pre-tournament technical meeting it was agreed that in the case of an injury to a goalkeeper - regarded as a specialist position - a replacement could be called in once an independent medical report was received.
But yesterday Oceania officials were not so sure and were seeking overnight clarification from Fifa before allowing Bannatyne to replace injured Jason Batty, who limped out of Wednesday's game against Tahiti with a calf injury.
Dugdale gave his players the day off yesterday, but was unable to name a starting line-up.
He hinted after Wednesday's 5-0 win over Tahiti that changes would be made.
After that victory it seems that any team he puts out today will be good enough for a huge win.
The early game between Vanuatu and the Solomons kicks off at 12.30 pm, and New Zealand and the Cooks meet at 2.45 pm.
By TERRY MADDAFORD