The Black Sticks men, kicked off their pretty epic 2014 in Perth over the Easter weekend playing two tests against Australia. They then played a cheeky game against Canada on Wednesday night as they lead in to the Champions Challenge, set to begin on Saturday. It's a big year for the lads with a few big tournaments on the agenda, but they also have a very settled squad of like minded jokers who have the perfect mix of talent and desire to do something special. Sounds like a perfect reason to follow them on their journey.
What about the ladies? Well we're not graced with a plentiful array of resources at the Niche Cache so if you know someone who might fancy reporting on the female side then get in touch. In a perfect world we'd cover both equally so we're on the look out for someone cool to join the team.
The Aussies, always a good bunch stream the two test series on Youtube which was pretty awesome. The more hockey you can watch the better, especially when it's a trans Tasman battle and especially with the Kookaburras being one of the premier hockey teams around. Australia were in the process on finalising their squad for the World Cup so they rolled out two different squads for each match while the Kiwis were searching for game time and consistency. It wasn't a case of the Aussies taking the Black Sticks lightly or not really caring, it was just a case of very different circumstances in each camp ... and it highlighted the distinct difference in depth.
The first test ended up 4-1 with a double to the cheeky lil Aussie Jacob Whetton late in the match blowing the score out. Before that, the Black Sticks battled back from 2-0 down to be 2-1 with Shea McAleese knocking one in, heading in to the closing stages but in the end the dominance of the Kookaburras showed. Watching the game you could see the effort from the Black Sticks was there, much of the execution however wasn't. It doesn't help when players were swarmed upon by a bunch of Aussies every time they got the ball ... but that's international hockey.
The second test for me showed what the Black Sticks could be capable of. Ending up in 1-1 draw, the Black Sticks showed a real desire and work rate to make the Aussies earn their goal and opportunities. The Aussies still dominated periods, but so did the Kiwis and the general chemistry of the team looked a lot better with passes finding their men and the movement of the players resulting in some smooth, free flowing chances. Kane Russell again showed his potency as he scored from a penalty corner early in the game. This game also marked the 300th test for captain Dean Couzins which is a pretty swell achievement, props.
All you can ask for is improvement and the Black Sticks showed that.
They also showed what could make them a team to watch for on the international stage. The skill and flair is evident with players like Simon Child, Hugo Inglis, Blair Hilton and Steve Jenness all capable of beating their man 1 v 1, taking any chance that presents itself and also doing the work that makes them a hard team to break down with 11 men behind the ball. With Alex Shaw moving in to the midfield, Arun Panchia quickly establishing himself as a force and Steve Edwards doing what he's done for a few years now, they have a very solid midfield ... especially with veterans Shea McAleese and Phil Burrows holding down the fort. It looks like Colin Batch has got this team on the same page with work rate, courage and attitude from the midfield and strikers making the defenders work a lot easier. There's also a crop of younger players - Marcus Child, Jared Panchia and Kane Russell who offer so much in the way of hockey ability but they also fit perfectly in to the style and scheme of Batch's side.
All this culminated in the Black Sticks dispatching Canada 7-0 in a match that wasn't an official test, but would have given the Black Sticks a lot of confidence. They were able to control the game a bit more against an opposition a few rungs below them, let alone Australia. They were also able to create plenty of chances and get a fair amount in with a variety of players getting on the score sheet which is pleasing. A lot of the upcoming Champions Challenge games will be played with temperatures in the 30's and 100% humidity so you'd imagine a solid hit out like this one albeit in cooler conditions will put them in good stead.
With the Champions Challenge kicking off over the weekend, we'll check back in next week to say how they're doing and hopefully report back with some good news. Otherwise if you're a hockey fan make sure you show your support, Hockey NZ do a pretty good job with social media and highlights etc so get amongst it.