Australia and NZ braced for World Cup warm-up

By Ian Ransom

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australia and New Zealand exchanged matey congratulations for securing their tickets to South Africa on Sunday, before promising to tear each other apart in their World Cup warm-up match.

The Monday night friendly at the 100,000-capacity Melbourne Cricket Ground has been billed as a potentially bruising encounter between Asian heavyweight Australia and its plucky upstart neighbor.

Although the sides have not met for five years, media on both sides of the Tasman have played up the Antipodean nations' traditional sports rivalry, and verbal potshots from players on both sides have done little to hose it down.

"As much as there's a bit of banter and a bit of rivalry we're quite happy that they're achieving like we are," Socceroos skipper Lucas Neill told reporters at the team's hotel.

"New Zealand is a perfect opponent at this stage."

"(They) will pose a great test for us from the physical side and the three teams we will go up against are renowned for being both technically gifted and physical, but we ourselves are physical."

Twentieth-ranked Australia will play Group D rivals Germany, Serbia and Ghana at the June 11-July 11 World Cup finals in South Africa. Seventy-eighth ranked New Zealand have been drawn to play champions Italy, Slovakia and Paraguay in Group F.

The Socceroos, still boasting almost all of the players that swept them to a surprise second round appearance in 2006, have a 36-13 winning record over the All Whites in A-grade matches.

"I think if you look at it in isolation it would be an extremely good result for us," New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert said of a possible victory over the Socceroos.

"Australia are well-ranked and beaten some very, very good sides of recent times."

"For us it's really just getting back on the pitch again and getting playing. There'll be mistakes and we can work on those as we lead toward the World Cup."


Australia coach Pim Verbeek confirmed that Harry Kewell's groin injury would see him sidelined and a sprained thumb had ruled regular goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer out, but scoffed at the notion of resting key players to avoid racking up more injuries.

"For us, it's a test match, so it's good not only to build confidence but also condition so they can work hard against a tough opponent."

"I'm not worried about injuries -- every player that can start, and that I'm putting on the field, they just have to play."

The Socceroos have set a target of reaching the second round in South Africa. New Zealand, who are re-joining the World Cup club after 28 years in the wilderness, would be happy just to glean a point from one of their three group matches.

Like the Socceroos, who have lost forward linchpin Mark Viduka to retirement and may yet lose Kewell to injury, the All Whites have queries about their firepower, having netted only one goal in their last three matches.

Shane Smeltz, twice Golden Boot winner in Australia's A-League, and English-based trio Rory Fallon, Chris Killen and Chris Wood have been charged with lifting the scoring.

"I've been in a lot of New Zealand teams where I would have given my left arm to have that kind of firepower, so I'm not worried at all," All Whites skipper Ryan Nelsen said.

(Editing by Patrick Johnston)