Ireland are going to the Rio Olympics instead of the Black Sticks men. Let that sink in while I hold onto a slight glimmer of hope that something crazy might happen with the African Hockey Championships and somehow the kiwi lads could wiggle their way into the Olympics - obviously a stretch.
Sidenote: how cool is it for hockey lovers that teams like Ghana, Tanzania, Nigeria, Botswana and Kenya are in action on the turf in the African Championships while we saw Samoa and Fiji battle away in the Oceania Cup. The more hockey teams taking part in international events, the better.
That's about where my positive vibes end though as it's extremely stink to not have the Black Sticks men qualify for the Rio Olympics. The men's current squad - not exactly the team that was rolled out for the Oceania Championships - is one of the strongest that I can remember with numerous world-class players. There's players like Simon Child, Nick Wilson, Ryan Archibald and Steven Edwards who have consistently been among the world's best for at least five years, while younger players have developed into key team members forming the core of this group. There may have been Black Sticks squads with better players and veterans Andy Hayward, Shea McAleese and Phil Burrows might have been missing for the Oceania Cup, but there's no reason why the Black Sticks men shouldn't be heading to Rio.
The Olympics ceiling of the Black Sticks men is a medal. If everything went their way and they played at their best, the Black Sticks men would be in the mix for a medal, that's their ceiling. Which is why not even getting to the Olympics is an issue.
Like most sports that don't enjoy the professional luxury - professional sport is still a foreign concept to many sports in Aotearoa - hockey is dependent on funding from High Performance Sport NZ which makes this a double whammy. Not only do the Black Sticks men miss out on a spot at the Olympics, in doing so they will likely miss out on necessary funding to maintain a high quality hockey program. So while I'm bummed that the Black Sticks won't feature in Rio (obviously they are as well), the uncertainty that awaits the men's hockey program will also provide anxious moments for the players.
Who is to blame? Where does the issue lay? As is always the case with team sports, it's the players who didn't perform and win games (like the shootout loss to Canada in the World Hockey League) that they should have won. You can never overlook that, although it is also fair to say that Colin Batch's position as coach can now only be considered untenable.
It would be wrong to lump the blame on Batch and the consistently inconsistent selections for two reasons. First of all I wrote many times over the last year and a half about building a group of 25 players or so who can compete on the international hockey stage (I just thought it would mean that the strongest possible squad would be picked for the Oceania Cup, guys in Europe aside). Secondly, it can be hard to select squads as players also have to work and some play in Europe so players will come and go - hence having a large squad to pluck quality from.
I shall settle with it being a complex task, coaching a New Zealand hockey team and so sympathy must be given to the coach. However, if you're the coach of a Black Sticks team who don't make the Olympics when they definitely should? Put it this way - if this were a more cut throat business, Batch would have already been given the flick.
Who knows what the ramifications of missing the Olympics will be for the men's national hockey program. The worst case scenario would be that High Performance Sport deem this as a miserable failure and cut a large portion of the already small amount of funding that the men's program get. Which is the problem of the reliance on funding from HPS as it's hard to get better and perform better in tournaments etc, with less funding.
This means that we could see more of the younger squad members venture to Europe, where they can enjoy earning some sort (varying degrees) of living from hockey ... instead of trying to hold a job/studies down while dedicating yourself to making the team. I find this to be an immense positive and if I were in that position, I'd be sniffing around for an opportunity in Europe where players get to play at a high level, travel and better themselves as people. European clubs might see kiwi players as prime targets to sign and we could see an exciting exodus.
I imagine that there will still be a market for the Black Sticks men to play international fixtures. What makes this so baffling is that this isn't a bad Black Sticks squad and other countries know that the Black Sticks will offer a highly competitive opposition, who are going to be better than some teams that will be in Rio. Unfortunately, the hockey wilderness is peeping over the fence, looking the Black Sticks in the face as we wait to see what the next year holds for this group. We must now trust in the review process of Hockey NZ, who must ensure that the potential of the Black Sticks men's team is fulfilled.
At least this was kinda cool...