By Greg Stutchbury
March 21 (Reuters) - New Zealand's preparations for their crucial World Cup qualifier match against New Caledonia in Dunedin on Friday could not have been more riddled with sub-text.
Former captain Ryan Nelsen, considered the stabilising force in the side, hastily retired in January to take up a coaching role at Major League Soccer's club Toronto FC.
Then coach Ricki Herbert quit his club job with the A-League's Wellington Phoenix.
Herbert then asked his former club captain Andrew Durante if he was interested in replacing Nelsen in the centre of New Zealand's defence, pending approval from world governing body FIFA.
Australian-born Durante had fulfilled residency requirements but by Wednesday still not had definitive approval from FIFA that he could play, forcing New Zealand Football not to select him for the match in case he was declared ineligible later.
To top that all off, if the All Whites actually win the game at the Otago Regional Stadium, they qualify for the intercontinental playoff for a place at the 2014 finals in Brazil against the fourth-placed CONCACAF side later this year with a game to spare.
New Zealand, who will now be led by West Ham United's Winston Reid, are unbeaten on 12 points in the final round of Oceania qualifying and beat New Caledonia 2-0 last September in Noumea.
Les Cagous, however, have produced three high-scoring victories since that loss to sit just three points behind the All Whites and have a goal difference of +11, while New Zealand have a goal difference of +12.
A draw or loss would mean that New Zealand would need to win, and win well, in Honiara on March 26 when they face the Solomon Islands, something Herbert was well aware of.
"There are no easy games in international football, we've proved that in recent years and also had a timely reminder of it from New Caledonia at the OFC Nations Cup in Honiara last year," Herbert added of their surprise loss to Alain Moizan's side last June in the Nations Cup semi-finals.
New Caledonia, who will meet Oceania champions Tahiti in Noumea on Tuesday, were also not prepared to just roll over to the team that made the 2010 World Cup finals.
"New Zealand are more experienced at playing high level matches than us and we have to be realistic," New Caledonia captain Olivier Dokunengo said.
"But we are not going there to be the victims and will keep fighting until the end."
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Auckland; Editing by Patrick Johnston)