MELBOURNE - An ostensibly harmless World Cup warm-up between Australia and New Zealand has taken on grudge match proportions with players from both sides firing verbal pot-shots ahead of the friendly in Melbourne on Monday.
The trans-Tasman rivalry, traditionally fierce in rugby and cricket, has had less time to develop in football, but with both countries competing in the same World Cup for the first time, the teams are keen to head to South Africa with bragging rights secured, and with pain inflicted, if necessary.
"When it comes to playing Australia, all bets are off," forward Rory Fallon told reporters this week as the All Whites gathered in Auckland for a training camp.
"I don't think anyone is going to hold back against them. I'm certainly not going to hold back.
"I wouldn't be surprised if there are a few injuries."
Monday's friendly at the 100,000-capacity Melbourne Cricket Ground will be the team's first meeting in five years.
In A-grade matches, 20th-ranked Australia holds a 36-13 winning record over 78th-ranked New Zealand, many of whose players are in Australia's domestic A-League.
But the smaller of the Antipodean nations has been known to embarrass its more fancied neighbour on big occasions.
New Zealand upset Australia 1-0 in 1998 to advance to the Confederations Cup and by the same score again for the same result four years later.
Fallon's bravado was not well received by the Socceroos' own hard man Vince Grella, whose fierce tackling has been known to infuriate opponents and opposition coaches.
"It's a man's game and it should be played in a man's way," said Grella, who has struggled with injuries that curbed his season with Premier League club Blackburn Rovers.
"But I would never wish it upon any of the New Zealand players to get injured ... For him even to be thinking about things like that is unprofessional."
After reaching a surprise second round appearance at the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany, Australia have higher expectations than New Zealand for South Africa.
Although facing Germany, Serbia and Ghana in Group D, one of the tournament's toughest pools, the Socceroos have set themselves a target of breaking through to the last 16 again.
New Zealand will be happy to secure a point from their Group F matches against champions Italy, Slovakia and Paraguay.
All Whites coach Ricki Herbert has promised to field a strong team for the match and urged counterpart Pim Verbeek to do the same rather than use it as a platform to experiment as he pondered how to cull the Socceroos' 30-man squad to 23 by June 1.
"There's no such thing as a friendly game I believe," the Socceroos' Turkey-based midfielder Mile Jedinak told reporters in Melbourne on Friday. "I'm sure we'll be taking the game seriously and it's a good preparation for us."comments