A Football Ferns squad bristling with experience has been named by coach John Herdman for the forthcoming FIFA Womenís World Cup Finals in Germany, with progressing to the quarter-finals of the competition their minimum objective.
Itís a battle-hardened combination, a far cry from the 21 players who headed to the 2007 Finals in China. That squad boasted just 294 caps in total, with just one of the chosen, Wendi Henderson, having made more than fifty appearances for her country at the time.
Four years on from that venture into the unknown, the knowledge gained from a combined total of 672 caps will depart New Zealand on Sunday, with that tally set to be bolstered by matches against Wales, Columbia and Denmark at the Matchworld Cup tournament in Switzerland prior to their German adventure.
Whatís more, five players - Hayley Moorwood, Abby Erceg, Jenny Bindon, Ria Percival and captain Rebecca Smith - have made over fifty appearances for the Football Ferns heading into these Finals, with three more - Kirsty Yallop, Ali Riley and Katie Hoyle - set to pass that tally by the time the final whistle is blown on New Zealandís 2011 Womenís World Cup campaign.
Indeed, Moorwood is poised to become New Zealandís most capped womenís international during the next six weeks, given she heads north needing one more appearance to join Henderson in having played 64 "A" internationals for her country.
Such a tally was a pipe dream four years ago, as coach John Herdman outlined at the media conference held to announce the squad. "Many of the players in 2007 were part of this vision for the 2011 World Cup. Itís a four year plan, and itís been an exciting four years.
"One of the keys to success, and about being successful in a World Cup, is the amount of international experience players have, and the average age of the team. When we went into 2007 in China, we were nowhere near the starting line, but at least with this World Cup, we have a fighting chance".
Erceg, Percival and Hoyle will, in Germany, be making their fifth appearance for New Zealand at a World Cup or Olympic Football tournament, while for Annalie Longo, a sixth Finals appearance on the world stage beckons.
Herdman himself will be attending his fifth Finals in a coaching capacity, but itís the "exciting group of players" he has chosen on whom attention is rightly focused at this time.
"Itís still quite a young squad", he continues, "but weíve got some senior players and leaders at the helm in captain Rebecca Smith and goalkeeper Jenny Bindon, whoíll be 38 years old when participating at this World Cup. (And sheíll hate me for saying that!)
"We also have players who are playing professionally, based in Sweden, Germany, England and in the USA - Ali Riley plays alongside Marta in the WPS. I canít emphasise enough how exciting this team can be moving into this World Cup".
Unlike in 2007, when the Football Ferns came up against Brazil, Denmark and host nation China, New Zealandís objectives at these finals are far higher than merely "drawing with or beating a top team, or taking a top team right to the wire and leaving them in no doubt they've been in a game", the goals Herdman set his young charges four years ago.
"The All Whites have set a real precedent - theyíve raised the bar. So this team has really got some expectations and responsibilities moving out onto that pitch. And I think the girls are ready to shoulder that responsibility.
"Our minimum goal is to aim to get out of that group", declares Herdman, with Japan, England and Mexico standing in the way of the Football Ferns and a World Cup quarter-final - a tantalising target which no New Zealand representative team has ever achieved.
"Itíll be a mammoth task, but the majority of players have been there, done it and got the t-shirt, so Iím sure four years of experience will put us in good stead for it".
The youthfulness of the squad is hard to ignore. Sarah McLaughlin, 20 last Friday, and Rosie White, just 24 hours after celebrating her 18th birthday, both couldnít have wished for a better present from NZ Football than to be selected for the Finals. So, too, Hannah Wilkinson, who turned 19 on the last weekend in May.
Hayley Moorwood, Rosie White, Rebecca Smith and Kirsty Yallop pictured at the squad announcement
Shane Wenzlick / Photosport
Anna Green and Betsy Hassett both turn 21 in August, while Longo moves out of her teenage years during the tournament, and will hope to play some part against England, the Football Fernsí opponents on her birthday.
For two teenagers in the squad, these Finals mark their first appearance at a senior World Cup Finals.
"Katie Bowen is a bit of a bolter", says Herdman. "She joined the Ferns squad on our recent tour of Australia and China, and really stepped up. Thatís what we want to see from a young player.
"Sheís 17. Sheís got the 2008 and 2010 U-17 World Cups behind her, but youíd think she was 37 the way she was playing on tour, and it is evident in her off-field maturity as well.
"The other new player is Erin Nayler, who had a fantastic U-20 World Cup last year in Germany. Sheís been working hard here in New Zealand, and went to the States, but came back quite early to commit to this World Cup cycle, and sheíll be in that goalkeeping mix".
While both are understandably delighted with their inclusion, a thought should be spared for Hannah Bromley, Olivia Chance and Hannah Wall, the three players to miss out on selection for the Finals squad after being part of the recent tour of Australia and China.
They will understandably be disappointed, but have the chance to bounce back quickly from this setback - the 2012 Olympic Womenís Football Tournament is just a year away, and making that squad is well within the capabilities of all three young women.
At the 2011 Womenís World Cup Finals, New Zealand takes on Japan in Bochum on June 27, then heads to Dresden to tackle England on July 1, with Mexico their final Group B opponents, in Sinsheim four days later.
You can look forward to plenty of Womenís World Cup-related stories appearing on www.sportswebsoccer.com over the next couple of weeks, including interviews with coach John Herdman and six players - Katie Bowen, Katie Hoyle, Hayley Moorwood, captain Rebecca Smith, Rosie White and Kirsty Yallop - plus reports on the Football Fernsí games at the Matchworld Cup tournament in Switzerland.