The Blacks Sticks men finished up their series against Japan with a 2-0 series win following a win and a draw over the weekend. The 2-1 win and 3-3 draw cap off a decent series for a Black Sticks side that were very fresh, but also had plenty of experienced campaigners which would have given coach Colin Batch a great chance to figure out the right mix.
On the whole, it was a good series for the lads. The likes of Simon Child, Arun Panchia and Steve Edwards showed that they're a class above and were highly influential with the ball on the ends of their sticks. There's a fluid nature to any Black Sticks attack that involves these three, with passes being thrown without hesitation and chemistry being clearly evident. Nick Haig was also impressive at the back, he got a good run in the centre of a back 3 as Coach Batch looks to replace Dean Couzins. Haig usually features on the flanks, but he was impressive in the middle.
In fact, the whole series against Japan displayed a fluid style. It definitely wasn't fluid in terms of every attack flowing perfectly - I'll get to that - but the Black Sticks threw different systems and set ups at Japan to try figure out. Whether it was Simon Child dropping back in to the midfield, or a wide defender pushing up in to the midfield, or even as simple as a central defender stepping up a layer to add another body in to the mixer, or Panchia roaming where ever he wanted. While it may not have resulted in Japan's defence being bamboozled, it was impressive to see the kiwis switch things up, especially with so many new faces.
Nick Ross isn't a new face, but he's someone who has been in and out of the Black Sticks side for a few years now. Probably thanks to the Black Sticks being pretty deep in their midfield, but Ross showed that he's someone who should feature heavily in the next few years. He's at his best being the deep centre midfielder, getting the ball and moving it on. He doesn't spend much time on the ball and looks to get rid of it pretty quickly, whether it's back to a defender or turning and going forwards. He's composed in traffic and in partnership with Panchia, they could give the Black Sticks a solid set up in the middle. Throw Edwards, George Muir and Simon Child in to the mix and you have a midfield that is fluid and can roll around different areas of the field.
The really, really, really fresh faces, the likes of Dane Lett, George Bain, Willie Davidosn and Dwayne Rowsell were good considering it was their first series. They appeared to fit in seamlessly with the systems and culture of the national side, but they can be forgiven for not being near perfect. There's plenty to learn and when the Black Sticks face Canada next month, these lads will be a lot more comfortable.
There's many top tier Black Sticks who aren't playing in this series as they're doing the business overseas, but this series has shown that there's some depth. Names and faces that may not be so well known - James Coughlan, Corey Bennett, Joe Bartholomew, Kane Russell, Jacob Smith and Marcus Child have all been doing the rounds for the Black Sticks for a while now and they showed that they're certified international hockey players. Coughlan, Smith and Marcus Child were impressive up front, taking on some more responsibility and leading the way. While Simon Child is known as one of the best defensive strikers, renowned for pinching the ball off defenders, Coughlan did the same as he boosted back in to the midfield to back tackle. That work rate, desire and effort is what makes the Black Sticks what they are and it's good to see these guys stepping up in to that void.
There's still lots to figure out before they play Canada. Going forward, too many passes resulted in a turn over or the ball going over the back line while defensively, the Black Sticks can look a bit slow. But that's the thing you have to juggle as most of our defenders are bigger lads, so coming up against quick Japanese strikers is a bit of a mission, not to mention that our bigger lads are all drag flick options so you can't have ya cake and eat it too.
It would have been nice to finish the series with a 3-0 win, instead the Black Sticks gave up 3 2nd half goals so the taste left in ya mouth isn't so lovely. The bigger picture suggests that it's a great stepping stone and this squad will benefit greatly from spending some time together against a quality opposition. Bring on Canada.