An ecstatic Tommy Smith hailed his injury-time headed goal as the best feeling of his international career as he booked a the All Whites a berth in the World Cup inter-continental playoffs.
"It's always a great feeling to score a winning goal especially in the dying seconds of the game,'' the 22-year-said after the All Whites' 2-1 win over a gallant New Caledonia team in Dunedin last night.
Smith's strike - his second for the All Whites - clinched a home and away playoff with the fourth-ranked team from the Concacaf confederation in November.
The Ipswich Town defender said skipper Winston Reid "got up and won the first header'' from a Kosta Barbarouses freekick in the fourth minute of injury-time.
"It popped up nicely for me. I just attacked the ball really and luckily it dropped in over the keeper.''
Smith's first emotion was sheer joy.
"We all knew there wasn't long left on the clock and to pop in a goal then, we knew the game was pretty much over.''
The match-winner meant coach Ricki Herbert's blood pressure returned to something resembling normal after it looked like his squad would be heading to Honiara needing at least a draw against the Solomon Islands on Tuesday.
But he is now considering resting a raft of players - he has nine men sitting one yellow card away from suspension for the first leg of the playoff.
Herbert said a decision would be made today on who would travel to Honiara.
Ben Sigmund will return from suspension and Andrew Durante may be cleared for his All Whites debut, meaning Herbert could afford to send Smith and Reid, the West Ham United Premier League star, back to their English clubs and also release players involved in the A-League playoffs.
Striker Shane Smeltz, who suffered a nasty gash to his head from an upraised New Caledonian boot, may also be in doubt.
Reid was adamant the All Whites should have had a penalty for the reckless act in the dying minutes. "On any other day, that would have been a red card.''
The All Whites took an early stranglehold in the ninth minute when Chris Killen - otherwise unconvincing in his unaccustomed central midfield role - rose high to head home a Leo Bertos corner.
But New Caledonia, with goal-scoring midfielder Cesar Lolohea, striker Georges Gope-Fenepej and Bertrand Kai all impressive "probably outplayed'' the All Whites,'' Bertos candidly admitted.
The All Whites should have won handsomely on chances created, even allowing for the failure to award a spotkick for the foul on Smeltz.
Smith thought his first-half header was destined for the net "but it cannoned off the crossbar and unfortunately we couldn't follow it in''.
He also toed the ball against the upright in a goalmouth scramble late in the first half.
Leicester City striker Chris Wood had a freekick strike the goal frame and he also missed a second-half sitter.
But the disappointing Dunedin crowd - only 7138 turned out to the city's first football international in 25 years - would have headed home aware that the All Whites would have scant chance of beating a side from North or Central America or the Caribbean on last night's effort.
They were over-run in midifled. Set-pieces or route one balls to tall targetman Wood were their most menacing forms of attack.
A relieved Herbert conceded "it wasn't the best of performances''.
But he said the result was more important. "I'm delighted, they stuck to their guns and they got something from it.''
Reid made a winning start as captain, produced an acrobatic shot, a sparkling 50m crossfield pass and a goal assist.
But, understandably, the All Whites missed retired skipper Ryan Nelsen's on-field direction.
The All Whites led 1-0 at the break and, after the interval, Smeltz smartly set up Wood but the Leicester City lad's shot was superbly saved by New Caledonian keeper Rocky Nyikene.
New Caledonia equalised in the 55th minute when playmaker Lolohea brilliantly chested down a 55th minute pass from Kai and slammed a low shot into the corner of the net to make it 1-1.
The All Whites twice went close from quickfire freekicks, the first after a fracas near the New Caledonia area which had Reid remonstrating to the referee.
Rojas almost embarrassed the keeper at the near post but Nyikene's flailing foot came to the rescue.
Wood then curled a freekick onto the far upright with no-one on hand to ram in the rebound.
Nyikene plucked a Smith header from under the bar before Wood missed a golden opportunity, squirting his shot wide with the net at his mercy.
Kiwi keeper Mark Paston made a goal-saving block to thwart Roy Kayara after New Caledonia fashioned the most free-flowing move of the match.
Referee Delovski again turned a deaf ear to a penalty shout when Smeltz hit the deck. But Smith spared the Kiwis' blushes.
All Whites 2 (Chris Killen 9mins, Tommy Smth 90+4) New Caledonia 1 (Cesar Lolohea 55). HT: 1-0.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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