Well after a disappointing loss to the hosts Malaysia, the Black Sticks did what we expected and rolled through their last two games scoring 12 goals and conceding 4. A pretty good way to finish a tournament at which they were keen to impress, but anything less than a finals appearance was always going to looked at with a tinge of sadness.
After defeating Poland 8-3 in pool play, the Black Sticks did the business in their playoff with a 6-1 after going up 5-0 at half time. This was followed by a 6-3 win over the French in the playoff for 5th which meant that the Black Sticks ended the tournament unbeaten through regular time despite their 5th spot, such is the nature of tournament hockey.
It's not really as bad as it sounds though. Like I've said before, the Black Sticks have some bigger goals in mind and while they would have loved to have celebrated a tournament win (which Korea ended up doing), they managed to score a lot of goals, defend pretty well and just spent time playing as a group. A quick look at their results makes for pretty good reading, 2-1 win, 6-1 win, 8-3 win, 4-4 draw (shootout loss), 6-1 win, 6-3 win. It's hard to look at that string of results and not come away with positives. 32 goals scored, 13 goals conceded and a bad patch of hockey against the Malaysians which kinda ruined the hopes of the Black Sticks.
Captain Dean Couzins reckons the tournament served it's purpose as the Black Sticks now look forward to the World Cup - "Still a number of positives as we continue to get close to the WC. We have had the chance to refine areas such as our counter attack & also how we defend counter attacks. The WC is obviously the big event & after a bit of recovery I'm sure all the guys will be excited to get over to Holland & get stuck in!"
At a time when many people are questioning the importance of Representive rugby league in the NRL, the Champions Challenge is a prime example of why such events must be held. The tournament on a whole provides many smaller nations with international hockey, which as a largely amateur sport is vital for the sports growth.
While from a complete bias point of view, the Black Sticks could of and should of at least made the final and had a good tussle against the Koreans, the fact that the semi finals featured Malaysia, Canada, Ireland and Korea is awesome for world hockey. To see France and Poland playing on the world stage is also great to see and as a hockey fan, the more international hockey there is, the better.
Here's a few more thoughts from Arun Panchia and Blair Tarrant
What'd you think of the tournament overall?
Arun - Overall Champions Challenge was a good build up tour for us. A disappointing result overall but winning 5 games out of 6 at the tournament, losing the other in a shootout isn't a bad result. There are plenty of positives too come out of the tournament that we'll take through the the World Cup.
Blair - I believe we are making steps in the right direction on the field. But obviously the teams we played at Champions Challlenge are not as highly ranked as the teams at the World Cup. It was also good to be creating a lot of scoring opportunities every game.
Where does it sit in the bigger picture?
Arun - Champions Challenge was ultimately preparation for one of our sport's pinnacle events - the World Cup. It was important for us to play well and refine our game so we can perform well in the Hague. The result itself means we won't be in the next Champions Trophy unless we win the World Cup or improve our ranking so we're the next highest ranked team not in the tournament.
Blair - Champions Challenge was a good building tournament for the world cup, as it let us concentrate on our own game. We were very focused on the "NZ" style of game during the tournament. This will be key that we stick to our own style heading into the World Cup.
Arun - I think the highlights from the tour in general was our own game and learning about what we're capable of. We still improving our game but we know when we play well we're capable of beating any team in the world. Consistency is something we wanted to improve from WL4 and I think that's something we improved on since then. Apart from the Malaysia game where a short period cost us dearly, we played some good hockey and were able to dominate games against lower ranked opponents something historically we have struggled with.
Kuantan was a nice place, a little hot but the people were great as they always are in Malaysia. The game vs Malaysia was full and the crowd were very loud in their support for their team and created a good atmosphere for the games.
The conditions are a talking point as we played two pool games at 3pm (first game of the day), the quarter final at 245pm and one other game at 245pm. The heat was in my opinion unsafe, resulting in very slow paced games due to the conditions. The temperature on the bench was in the mid 40's with the highest just over 45 degrees. On the pitch they think it's a few degrees higher and with the humidity being around 80% or higher it made for the hottest conditions I've played in. The dugouts have fans but escaping the heat is impossible and every game we're losing around 2-3kgs, while constantly drinking water and iced slushies to keep our body temperature down. They turned the games into 17.5 min quarters as they deemed the conditions were too hot for 35 min halves which I agree with. However playing international hockey in that heat isn't beneficial for anyone. The players find it very tough and unsafe, and the specatators watching are viewing a far slower game which doesn't align with the way modern day hockey is currently played.
Blair - Culturally I personally believe that this is the best we have been since I have been in the team. Everyone has the same goal of achieving big results at world tournaments. And we are all willing to sacrifice a lot to try and make it happen. But obviously the World Cup is going to be a really tough event. So all we can do now is try and implement everything we have been working on. Starting with game 1 v Korea.
The Black Sticks will now get a chance to rest up in New Zealand before they head in to a training camp ahead of the World Cup. We'll be back in action just before the World Cup to check in on their chances at something awesome as well as looking at the World Cup on a whole.