The Black Sticks finished off 2014 in style with some strong performances against Canada over the weekend. It was only fitting that we had a chat with Black Stick mid-fielder and all round hockey maestro Arun Panchia...
Mystery Doctor - 2014 has been a huge year for the Black Sticks, what's your gut feeling about how the year went for the boys?
Arun - My gut feeling would be disappointment. Mainly because we set our sights quite high and failed to meet our own objectives. We know we are capable of much more and that's probably the disappointing thing. We had winnable games at every major tournament where we didn't quite get over the last hurdle but I have no doubts we've learnt a lot from the year and will be better for it for the future.
How do you see the team getting over that hump - making semi-finals instead of quarter-finals, finals instead of semi-finals? You have the talent, perhaps one of the best squads in a while.
I think experience plays a big part of succeeding in those critical games. It's hard to simulate the pressures around those situations and being in them is the best practice I believe. Additionally we need to be playing top four teams more often and unfortunately it's a difficult proposition getting them to travel to New Zealand, however we are looking at ways of playing the top teams more often. We have one of the deepest squads in recent memory with every player really having to earn their spot which is great. The challenge is to keep pushing each other whether you're a fresh faced 20 year old or a 100+ cap veteran. I think our environment has evolved in the past 18 months and there are a lot of encouraging signs for 2015 and beyond.
The team not only has options in terms of depth with young guys coming in and going well, but there are many options in how you set up. It all seems pretty fluid - whether Simon Child drops deeper, you and Ryan Archibald floating around and defenders sometimes pushing up field. Does that just happen or is there structure to that fluid nature of the team?
Yeah there is a fair bit of structure to what we do. We often keep tinkering with our structures too see what works best with the group we have and that fluidity comes from guys being on the same page. That stems from having a good understanding of how we play and also the trust and experience with the guys within the group. One of the challenging things with international hockey is getting the best out of each player and finding a structure or playing style that allows for that flair to come through and having a game plan to combat your opposition. That's what we've seen most recently in the Canadian series with Simon playing deeper, our wing defenders having the ability to push forward more and Ryan's creativity through the midfield. I think we're starting to make strides in establishing our own identity as a team which should translate to stronger and more consistent performances and ultimately the most important thing - winning!
Did these games against Japan and Canada help you try a few different set ups and systems? The squad was pretty different from the squad that played most of the year, welcoming Nick Wilson and Archibald back and the likes of Hugo Inglis, Alex Shaw etc in Europe
Yeah the squad was a lot different in the last two series with several debutants and also guys that hadn't had as many opportunities this year. It was great to have Nick and Ryan back, they both added a lot to our game and fit in well. The new group gave the coaches the opportunity to try different combinations but also expose the newer guys to our environment. We played an old structure but with a lot of core ideas that we've developed throughout the year. I thought it worked well and wouldn't be surprised if we continue on in 2015 with similar structures and tactics.
There's blokes who can get the ball and create a chance from nothing in the circle, while there's guys like you who can get Penalty Corners efficiently with 3 or 4 guys able to drag flick. Is that enough to break down elite defences? It's pretty encouraging...
Absolutely, the PC presents a good scoring opportunity and we spend a lot of time practicing, analysing and scouting the different options both in attack and on defence. Earning PC's is somewhat of a focus for strikers and attacking midfielders and it suits our attackers individual skill set's and flair in the circle. We were a little disappointed in the recent series with our scoring percentage and that will certainly be a focus going into next year. However, we do have a range of quality flickers and variations which are on par with the top teams and is always something we are looking to improve on.
Who would you hate to defend against from the Black Sticks?
Depends where you are on the field for me. In the circle it'd be Simon Child and in the midfield Ryan Archibald or Steve Edwards who have some ankle-breaking moves which are hard to defend.
What's the main difference between Child and Archibald's elimination skills?
They're pretty similar I think, looking for their defender to commit before going to an elimination skill. Simon uses his body a bit more and can put the defender in an awkward position whereas Ryan uses more deception and ball movement to make the defender bite.
What's the off season got in store for you? When are the Black Sticks back in action and how do you balance staying sharp but refreshing yourself as well?
We've got a short off season lasting four weeks before we resume our training programme in January. The focus for me is too relax, refresh and enjoy summer while continuing to work part time through the holiday period. We have a strength and conditioning programme which is aimed around maintaining and building our base fitness which will provide us with a good platform to restart next year. In terms of our schedule we have a training camp near the end of January where we begin our preparation for World League 3 in Argentina (June 2015) which is our first chance at qualifying for the Olympics. In between then and WL3 there are talks of a home series and one or two lead up tours so watch this space as they should be confirmed in the next little while.