By TERRY MADDAFORD
New Zealand enjoyed 90 per cent of the possession, had 28 scoring chances to one and a 14-to-0 corner count - but still struggled against lowly Cook Islands before winning yesterday's World Cup qualifier 2-0.
Coach Ken Dugdale later admitted: "We were awful in the first half. That's why we had to make changes. But we have bigger fish to fry.
"And did we win?" Yes, we did. End of story," Dugdale said, when asked about his team's lacklustre effort against a side who had conceded 17 goals in their first two games at the North Harbour-based tournament.
But surely there must be real concerns that players given a chance - and only two of the starting line-up in Wednesday's game against Tahiti started yesterday - failed to step up and show they really want international football.
The first 45 minutes were ordinary. No urgency, no go forward and a sorry lack of ideas against a team who had come to defend.
Debutantes Jonathon Taylor and goalkeeper James Bannatyne had an armchair ride, as did co-defenders Scott Smith and Sean Douglas. That was not the concern. The lack of midfield grunt and strike power was.
The introduction for the second half of Simon Elliott and Aaran Lines, and goals in the 65th and 66th minutes by Noah Hickey, provided some spark.
There was not much else, apart from the plethora of half-chances which served only to earn the Cook Islands' Wellington-based goalkeeper Tony Jamieson man-of-the-match honours.
Although Dugdale was happy with the three points that have kept the All Whites in a share of the group lead with the Solomon Islands, plenty in the crowd were baying for his head.
"You can either win with panache or lose in a scrappy manner. They [the Cooks] wanted single figures and they got it. Their goalkeeper made some good saves," Dugdale said.
"We did not play as well as we did on Wednesday, but then we did not have the first team out."
Dugdale is right. His team won - on the scoreboard at least - but as a performance likely to drag in the crowd for Monday's decider with the Solomons, it was well short and not far ahead of the embarrassing loss to Papua New Guinea four years ago.
Dugdale was abrupt at even a half suggestion it might rate as one of the worst All Whites' efforts of recent times, saying he would cut off lines of communication with the All Whites camp if people said that. At times there seemed to be a communication breakdown on the field as well.
In the early game - a real entertainer - Vanuatu's Richard Iwai scored the first and last goals, but that was not enough to stop the Solomons racing away to win 7-2.
Iwai stunned the Solomons when he scored in the ninth minute. Vivian Wickham got the Islanders back to 1-1 in the 19th minute. And that was the halftime score.
Vanuatu coach Carlos Buzzetti switched goalkeepers at the break, but hapless Presley Garae watched three whistle past him in the first three minutes of the second spell.