Leading into the World Hockey League Final, I was excited about the prospects of the Black Sticks ladies side. An air of youth, experienced youth (a unique hockey situation) and some of the world's best players led me to settle on this Black Sticks team having a great chance of doing something special and after a 2-1 quarter-final win over Great Britain and a 2-1 semi-final win over Germany this morning, the final awaits.
Germany offered a far greater challenge in the semi-final than they did in pool play, despite the Black Sticks controlling much of the game. The early stages however saw the Black Sticks continuously serve up opportunities to Germany with a combination of sloppy basic skills and sound German pressure resulting in many turnovers. It was Germany though who gave up the best opportunity of the first half with a poor pass across the face of goal going straight to Gemma Flynn, who then set up Kirsten Pearce. 1-0, cheers Germany.
Liz Thompson then slotted a drag-flick, to give the Black Sticks a 2-0 lead before half-time. Thompson sliced the flick into the bottom right corner after lining up on the left, not easy to do as the goalie was left scrambling.
Germany hit back in the second half as Eileen Hoffman pounced on a rebound off a penalty corner which ensured a tight finish, with a German penalty corner in the last few seconds being the climax. They couldn't find the equalizer though and the Black Sticks now wait for the result between Argentina and China; Argentina should win, setting up an epic final for the kiwis as they'll not only face a great team but a home crowd as well.
The players ahead of them get a lot of the limelight, yet with all good teams there's a strong defence and this young group of Black Sticks defenders have been impressive. Brooke Neal holds down the middle of the defence and she did a great job as the last defender, often stepping in front of her striker, using her reach to pinch interceptions and make crucial tackles. With Liz Thompson, Ella Gunson, Rose Keddell and Sam Charlton all doing fine jobs staying organised and scrambling, there's a grit to this Black Sticks team that makes them hard to break down and more often than Germany's attacks were only presented with half-chances.
Special mention needs to go to Stacey Michelsen, who often sparked Black Sticks attacks at right-half by leaving her German marker with broken ankles. Michelsen did manage to dribble into trouble a few times but the intent to attack (instead of passing backwards) puts the kiwis on the front foot ... and then she's rarely out of place as a defender, doing shuttles up and down the sideline.
As has been the case throughout this tournament, the Black Sticks strikers did a fabulous job without the ball. I'd argue that Gemma Flynn, Charlotte Harrison, Petrea Webster and Olivia Merry are the best group of strikers at working back and pressing defenders. They all share a high work ethic and are willing to do anything to win the ball; Harrison hit the deck in front of a German player as they hit the ball, perfectly scooping an interception and risking her life in the process and her dive to try 'shave' the ball off a German player also epitomised the effort of the Black Sticks strikers.
It's always nice when the key player - especially in a final - is also your skipper. Anita Punt rarely put a foot wrong against Germany in the middle of the park, using her pace to hustle on defence and scooting into space on attack. Punt always appears to be around the ball and tends to be the player who is given the ball after the kiwis win a turnover, making the Black Sticks' counter-attack rather lethal.
Sidenote: Punt is a top-5 player in the world, easy.
In the final, with the Black Sticks likely to face Argentina they will probably spend most of the game soaking up wave after wave. We always want to see the Black Sticks holding possession, stringing passes together and building attacking movements, yet the reality may be different which could play into the Black Sticks' hands.
One of the beauties of this Black Sticks team is that they aren't just a counter-attacking force as they also look great holding the ball. The counter-attack and the speed at which they do so will present the Black Sticks with great opportunities to sneak chances and hopefully goals in, regardless of where the counter-attack starts; our strikers can force mistakes while good luck carrying the ball into congestion with Neal/Thompson/Charlton holding down the middle of the field. The Dutch hit the kiwis by going around them and this would be Argentina/China's greatest opportunity.
A World Hockey League Final ... final. The Black Sticks ladies thoroughly deserve to be here and it's a great achievement, reinforcing their position as one of the best hockey teams in the world. Settling is never good enough in sport though and while making a final is nice, victory over the home team would be excessively sweet ... a win over China would also be pretty nice.