The Black Stick Women have finished third in Pool A to play off for fifth and sixth place at the World Cup. The quest for a medal began with a tight game against Belgium favouring the Kiwi’s 4-3.
The first half of hockey saw New Zealand dominate possession and territory and 20 minutes in scored their first goal off a penalty corner deflection from Krystal Forgesson. A well-executed set play to put them ahead early on. Shortly after, Anita Punt stepped to the top of the circle for another penalty corner. Not so well executed, Forgesson was again in the strike zone to put the ball in the goal after a scrappy play. Just before the half time whistle blew, a third penalty corner was awarded to the Black Stick girls and Punt fired it into the bottom left hand corner to take the half time score to 3-0. The half time score rightly favoured the team performing on the day and the Kiwi’s looked slick and dominant. Back onto the pitch and it wasn’t long until Kayla Whitelock tapped the ball in after a juggling passage of play from Olivia Merry. Four nil up with 25 minutes to go, the game looked like it was in the bag for the New Zealand girls.
This allowed coach Mark Hager to make some rotations and rest some key players. A danger in any sport, the Belgium team capitalised on the changes and were on the score board after Liz Thompson deflected a baseline crash ball into the goal. It wasn’t long before the Red Panthers scored again after some questionable marking by the Black Sticks defenders, leaving two Belgium players unmarked in front of goalkeeper Sally Rutherford. The Belgium women continued to dominate, capitalising on unforced errors from the Black Sticks earning a stroke after phase two of a Belgium penalty corner. This took the score line to 4-3 and suddenly the New Zealand girls found themselves in a pressure situation of walking away with only one point for a game they should have dominated. Luck was on the Black Sticks side with the full time whistle blowing at 4-3 however, the Red Panthers had delivered the Black Sticks a good wakeup call in the first game of the World Cup.
In the second round of Pool A, New Zealand met Korea – a team they had met regularly this year, notably beating them 3-1 in the Festival of Hockey in April. Coming off a near-draw to Belgium (ranked 12th in the world), the Black Sticks had some improvements to make, notably in their defensive circle. An uneventful first half saw 30 minutes of missed opportunities and a score line of 0-0. The final minutes of the first half finally produced an exciting passage of play – for the Koreans. A crash ball hit from the left baseline was not trapped by TWO black stick players, and deflected into the goal by a Korean striker, sitting on the right post. This defensive lapse eventually cost New Zealand the game with the final score staying at 1-0. A disappointing effort from the girls who would have been expecting to come away with the full three points, which would have put them in a better spot for the semi-finals.
With a loss to Korea, the next three games against the Netherlands, Japan and Australia became all that more important to keep any hopes of medalling alive. First up, the girls had to dig deep to pull off a win against host nation the Netherlands. An intense game played in front of a full house of 15,000 supporters saw the Netherlands score off their first penalty corner 4 minutes into the game with a great deflection over Sally Rutherford. Another well-worked penalty corner forced Rutherford to make a great low left stick save to deny Netherlands another goal. It wasn’t long before another goal-scoring opportunity fell to the girls in orange forcing Sam Charlton to make a brilliant diving save on the line. The Black Sticks didn’t have much time to breath however, as the Netherlands drove in for another penalty corner, which forced Rutherford to make another phenomenal save top left. Five minutes later and just before half time, the Netherlands finally put on the in the back of the net after some poor marking from one of the New Zealand girls that had just been rotated on. A great long corner crash-ball saw an unlikely deflection go in over Rutherford’s head for a 2-0 halftime score. The Black Sticks remained on the back foot for the rest of the game, with one goal scoring opportunity falling to Stacey Michelsen who shot straight at the keeper. The Netherlands mucked up two sure goal scoring opportunities after more defensive errors from the Kiwi girls to finish the game 2-0.
With two losses and a close win, the Black Sticks found themselves struggling to make the top 6 let alone the semi-finals. A solid performance against Japan was needed and the Black Sticks delivered with a 4-1 win. A penalty corner deflection from Sophie Cocks from a Punt drag put the girls on the scoreboard early on, followed by an incredible top left drag flick by Punt – some of the men’s teams ought to take a look! Stacey Michelsen showed some of her flare in a great cross field run, beating several Japanese players to finish with a reverse shot which was saved but fell onto the stick of Katie Glynn who rarely misses from that close to the goal. Leading 3-0, Japan showed moments of skill and a great ball into the circle onto a Japanese striker’s stick was finished clinically for a 3-1 half time score. The game remained at 3-1 with passages of passing but regular turnovers from both sides. Two minutes left in the game saw the game open up with Michelsen delivering a brilliant ball to Punt who are promoted up the left flank to score an unchallenged firing reverse, finishing the game at 4-1. The girls spirits were lifted from this performance – as were their supporters – and the next game was to be the most crucial of the tournament.
Arch rivals Australia entered the game against the Black Sticks on nine points with 3-2 wins against Korea, Japan and Belgium, and a 2-0 defeat to the Netherlands. At this point, the Netherlands were already through to the semis and Australia required a draw or a win to put them through. New Zealand shot themselves in the foot by losing 1-0 to Korea, requiring them to win against Australia to have even a small chance of making the semis, and even then it would have gone to goal difference.
To make matters worse, if the Black Sticks were to lose this game, they could have been playing off for 7th and 8th and word around the hockey circle was if the girls didn’t make the top six, all funding from Sport New Zealand would be cut. In what was a massive game for both New Zealand and Australia that could have gone either way, the game asked a lot of both teams and exposed elements of fatigue by all players. The Black Stick girls had more opportunities than the Hockeyroos which is great – but the 0-0 final score line highlights the amount of missed chances they failed to finish. Seven minutes into the game, Olivia Merry had an almost certain goal given to her on a plate, with only the keeper to beat but failed to control the ball. Krystal Forgesson then had the best opportunity of the game receiving the ball from Punt on the stroke spot and put the ball wide on the near post, with a free kiwi striker waiting on the far post – that’s one opportunity you’d like to forget! Australia had a goal disallowed after a smart referral by Forgesson and the rest of the game was played in the middle of the field, the Aussies happy to play out for a draw. An intense game for the girls and everyone watching on the edge of their seats, the faces of the Black Stick girls explained it all. When you see players from both teams lying on the ground at the end of the game, you know they left everything out there.
Two wins, two losses and a draw leaves the Black Sticks finishing third in the pool and playing off for fifth and sixth against China on Saturday. This means three days of rest for our girls who will be looking to win their last game of their World Cup campaign. China however, have put in some solid performances drawing 1-1 to Germany and Argentina, beating England (who have been incredibly disappointing at this tournament) 3-0 and South Africa 4-3, and losing to America 5-0. It will be a challenging game with the Chinese playing a fast paced game but the Black Stick girls are more than capable of finishing fifth.