We're back. I could have given a straight up and down review of the Black Sticks World Cup performance but I thought I'd let some dust settle and do an in-betweener with the Commonwealth Games just around the corner. With the Com Games squad being named, we can look back at the World Cup (a little bit) and turn our attention to the Games in Glasgow where the Black Sticks will be targeting a medal at the least.
I didn't want to focus solely on the World Cup because at the end of the day a 7th place would have been pretty disappointing for the team. Disappointing on paper as many people such as the media and funding organisations only look at their standing in the world to judge them and you'd imagine that it would take some higher placings to really get some momentum. But given the way that the Black Sticks performed as a unit and a few fine individual performances, you could easily view it as a reasonable job well done.
It was a definite job well done for Australia who put on a show in the final...
The key game was their 3-1 loss to Argentina who eventually finished 3rd. That's the tough thing about world hockey - while we can say that there are games that they should have won, no one would have picked Argentina to make such an impact on the tournament. Doing the silly 'sporting math' equations ... the Black Sticks drew 1-1 with the Dutch (2nd), lost to Germany 5-3 (6th) and beat Spain (8th) in a shootout. To try predict anything or make sense of things in world hockey would be foolish. These are very competitive times and things could just as easily fall the Black Sticks way, as opposed to falling the other way.
One day it will...
What's important is that the Kiwis do well at the Commonwealth Games. A bit of an easier schedule awaits the Black Sticks in Glasgow with their group consisting of England, Canada, Trinidad and Tobago as well as the Malaysians ... so easier than the World Cup but you'd imagine that only the T&T game will provide the Black Sticks with a chance to flex their muscle.
Regular readers will note the positive nature of this wee series and with two disappointing results in their previous two tournaments, I have no ambition on easing up the positive tone. It's just another opportunity for the Black Sticks to showcase themselves on the international stage and continue to build. While results and placings haven't come about, the growth of the team and their chemistry has been pretty clear to see. The work rate and organisation on defence allows the Kiwis to absorb attacking raids while the group of strikers led by Simon Child who had a fantastic World Cup are emerging as a dangerous force.
The key will be control. The European sides like to control the game for long periods shifting defences with passing, while the Aussies control the game by being such a rampant force. The Black Sticks must find their own way to control the game, retaining possession and not turning the ball over in the middle third will be the order of the day. They have shown the ability to stay strong defensively and then strike on the counter attack which is an exciting trait, but to be able to build attacking movements through the layers would get any hockey fan excited. You'd imagine that they would benefit greatly from playing so much hockey together recently and with Child, Dean Couzins, Shea McAleese and Phil Burrows, there is a strong group of leaders who will ensure that the team is on the same page.
Both Brad Shaw and Shay Neal return to the Black Sticks for the Com Games. Shaw will strengthen the defence and add to that group of experienced players while Neal returns after a lengthy injury lay off. Neal is a hard working, skillful striker who has been in and around the squad for a few years and should fit right in. Being able to call upon such players is definitely a bit of a luxury and given that this is their 3rd major tournament in a matter of months, depth and reliability is a key.
Who knows how it will all pan out. Obviously a medal is the goal, but the chances of a big upset over say they Aussies is equally as likely as not making it out of the group. The exciting thing is that there is a genuine chance of achieving more that just a medal and this group could cap off a solid year by doing something pretty cool. Here's hoping!