Skipper Tommy Smith becomes World Cup matchwinner for All Whites

TOMMY Smith was an unlikely matchwinner in the Solomon Islands to help New Zealand get off to a winning start on the first step of their road to the 2014 World Cup.

The All Whites narrowly beat Fiji 1-0 on Saturday in the first group match of the Oceania Nations Cup, a competition that is doubling up as the a qualifying stage for the tournament in Brazil.

Smith, named captain for the competition in the absence of former Blackburn and Tottenham defender Ryan Nelson, scored his first ever international goal in the ninth minute.

But in 35C (95F) temperatures and 70% humidity, the All Whites found the match tough going and Smith’s defensive qualities had to come to the fore as Fiji pegged their more illustrious opponents back.

The Town centre back, who is expected to once again lead his team in today’s group match, against Papua New Guinea, was a relieved man after the opening match win.

He said: “It was tough conditions, very humid. We managed to get quite an early goal which helped us settle a bit. Unfortunately we couldn’t add to the goal but we managed to hold on to the win.

“They got their tails up towards the end. We were defending quite deep towards the end and the energy levels were low but we managed to get through it.”

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The 22-year-old will face a gruelling tournament, not just because of the punishing climate but also because the Oceania Football Confederation has scheduled the entire tournament to be played on the same Honiara pitch – for a total of 16 games in 10 days.

After today’s match, the All Whites face the Solomon Islands on Wednesday with semi-finals and the final scheduled for over the weekend.

Smith acknowledged to local media that the Pacific environment had its challenges while All Whites manager Ricki Herbert added: “We got the three points. There’s a lot to work on but some things we can’t change as far as the weather is concerned – that was a huge factor.”

Meanwhile, Josh Carson, who turned 19 yesterday, got his birthday celebrations off to the wrong start when he came off the bench for Northern Ireland during their 6-0 drubbing by the Netherlands.

The Ipswich Town midfielder won this third full cap after coming on at half-time with Northern Ireland already 4-0 down. But he could make little difference to the scoreline as the Netherlands warmed up for their European Championship ‘Group of Death’ in impressive fashion.