The past few days has seen the Black Sticks men and women get back on track to varying degrees. The ladies couldn't quite hold on to a 3-2 lead and had to settle for a 3-3 draw in their 3rd and final match against Australia while the men started their series against Japan with a 1-1 draw. They lads came back last night to put in a clinical performance, one that would have pleased coach Colin Batch as they handled their business 3-0.
Once again, it was the Stacey Michelsen show for the ladies as she scored two goals with Olivia Merry grabbing the other. Michelsen has enjoyed playing further up the field a wee bit which gives her better opportunities to run at defenders and try beat them. Where the Black Sticks ladies are enjoying success though is when Michelsen creates chances for others which is pretty much every time she runs the ball. Defenders know of her dribbling ability and are lured in to try shut her down, Michelsen keeps her head up and is able to pick the free team mate.
I'm not too sure how coach Mark Hager would feel about this series. He's witnessed this team, with a mixture of fresh faces and a few experienced girls, look good on attack as they're quick, skillful and have a good understanding of where their team mates are/should be. Yet he's also seen his team struggle to finish games and control possession, which is likely an off-shoot of the wee lack of experience and combinations within the team. While exciting hockey has been played with attacks flowing from one goal to the other, the fact that the kiwi girls couldn't control the tempo and dictate proceedings will be a slight worry. They'll be all good though, with the Champions Trophy coming up, the team has had a great chance to be put under pressure against a tough opponent and they'll be much better for it.
While Michelsen has floated further up the field for the ladies, the captain for the men's side has been influential sliding deeper. Simon Child is a renowned finisher, but in the first two games against Japan he has been able to roam like a Pukeko which sees him pick the ball up deeper and create. In game 1 Child picked up a lot of ball between the halfway line and the 25 metre line which is either really congested with many Japanese players sniffing around for a turnover, or he's got his head up with a bit of time to pick out his fellow strikers. He's a great passer and obviously able to make defenders look dumb so he's been the focal point on attack. He's able to pop up anywhere and do anything (whether it be dribble or pick out a pin-point pass) which must suck for the defenders,
In game 1 there were a lot of missed traps and passes that either went to a Japanese player or over the back line. That seemed to get tidied up in the 2nd game with the lads far more clinical going forward. They're holding the ball well with Nick Ross impressing deep in the mid-field while the likes of Arun Panchia and Steve Edwards have looked to receive the ball and get it humming forwards.
All the young lads have looked at home, it was a tough first up game for them as international hockey is pretty quick ... let alone playing against Japan who put their quick feet to good use on attack and defence. While Simon Child and Arun Panchia have looked to get most of the ball, it's been great to see others contribute especially in the final third. Jacob Smith bagged a double last night with some fine efforts while the goal in game 1 came from a nice ball from George Muir to pick out Richard Bain. The way hockey is, sometimes you loose a bit of punch when your first rotation takes a spell, but there's enough depth to pose a threat throughout the game. Our wide defenders - Kane Russell, Dwayne Rowsell, Joe Bartholomew, Corey Bennett etc have been keen to get forward which pushes another body in to the mix and they're all able to put on some gas/a bit of skill to eliminate defenders.
The men will be keen to keep progressing, they showed great signs of improvement from game 1 to game 2 but they'll need to match Japan's improvement. Japan are the sort of team who are always in the contest as they put you under pressure and are great counter attackers, so while you may be in control, it's easy to find yourself a few goals behind.