The Black Sticks men got their series against Canada off to a sow-ish start with a 2-1 win but managed to follow that up with a slick a 4-0 win. It's clear that the Black Sticks are a level or two above the Canadians, who are fighting valiantly but lack the skill and toughness of the Kiwis.
The big difference to note between Canada and the Black Stick's previous opponent Japan, is the overall skill level. Passes bobbling along the ground, a lack of ball speed and miss-traps mean that the Canadians put themselves under the pump and aren't able to hang with the Black Sticks, especially in the second test. It's just the way it is, Canada are playing as their ranking would suggest but it's a great opportunity for them to play international hockey, especially against a New Zealand side that looks to have taken a step up from the Japanese series.
Many a hockey player has come across this lad named Ryan and been made to look like a fool in the process. Ryan Archibald's return to the mid-field has been huge, especially as the Black Sticks find themselves with a bit more time and space on the ball. Archibald can not only break ankles but he's able to hold the ball when a few defenders surge on him, he's a cucumber and has the coolness of someone who has seen it all before. This allows the Black Sticks to recycle the ball - probe up the right and swing it out to a fullback on the left for example as Archibald is frequently the deepest mid-field, kind of like Andrea Pirlo. The most impressive aspect of Archibald's involvement is the fluid nature of the mid-field. We've seen over and over again how great Arun Panchia and Simon Child are at popping up anywhere and everywhere, but George Muir was also super impressive in that regard and you'd have to imagine that having Archibald in the trenches gives everyone a boost.
Canada tried, well they did identify a few key men and sent numbers at them whenever they had the ball. However, Child, Panchia and Archibald have great movement as well as an understanding - if they don't have the ball they know that they can suck defenders one way, leaving guys like Muir in space.
Up front, the return of goal scoring maestros Nick Wilson and Stephen Jenness was awesome to see. Hockey fans across the land have seen Jenness slot goals like that many, many times before while Wilson just adds class. His movement and confidence on the ball keeps defenders on their toes, well that's when they can keep up with him. Leaving Wilson free at the top of the circle is a recipe for disaster.
James Coughlan continues to impress with a high work rate and he showed that he's no mug in front of goal with a decent effort similar to that of Jenness. Shay Neal's of a similar mould and along with Jacob Smith, the Black Stick virtues of hard work and energy are on display despite the line changes.
Defensively, the Black Sticks haven't had as many issues in containing Canada. A lot of this has to do with how they set up as Canada build up their attacking waves. The Black Sticks chop and change between putting Canada's fullbacks under pressure, pressuring the ball to one site and destroying the confidence of a wide defender, as well as sitting back. Sitting back deeper is equally effective as the Black Sticks wait for the ball to get in to the congested mid-field and then pounce. This is a great series to work on these set ups as they shouldn't find themselves chasing the game, they are generally in control and are able to flex those control muscles without the ball as well.
Overall, it's happy days. Unlike the financial situation between the players and the national organisation, it's happy days. The Black Sticks will be keen to amp it up a level but they'll have to contend with Canada who will be learning on the go and keen to implement new set ups and schemes. It'll be interesting to see what Canada offer, they have a few days to watch the tape and take note of how the Black Sticks are going about their business so you'd have to expect them to try a few new things.
Keep an eye on how the Black Sticks build their attacking plays. We've seen glimpses of some pretty impressive combinations starting right at the back, holding the ball, then flipping a few small passes in the mid-field resulting in an opportunity. It's a pretty awesome team, despite being under strength so hopefully we will get to see some more razzle dazzle champagne hockey.