After making the final of the Hockey World League Finals, the Black Sticks ladies understandably fell victim to a rampant Argentina side who were eager to put on a show for their home fans. I can't stress how difficult it would have been for a young Black Sticks side to face Argentina, in Argentina in a final so while it's a pity that they couldn't get the job done, it was one hell of a mission.
With the Rio Olympics on the horizon in 2016, the Black Sticks ladies are perfectly poised to make some waves in Rio. The young nature of the ladies squad that competed in Argentina provides plenty of optimism, although it's the talent in this ladies squad that should excite kiwi hockey fans. In Argentina we saw the Black Sticks ladies showcase their signature style based on speed and hard work, led by Anita Punt in the midfield who continues to impress as the leader of this team.
Punt herself reflects how I feel about this group in a weird way. Punt's the skipper and an experienced performer in international hockey. Punt has also shown that she is one of the most dangerous players in the world, which obviously offers great value to the team. Flip that around to the younger players like Brooke Neal, Liz Thompson, Rose Keddell, Sam Charlton, Sophie Cocks (there's a fair few) who on the one hand offer great hope for the future of the Black Sticks yet they also double as key members of this squad, who if they were absent would leave big holes left to fill.
Many Black Sticks squads in the past have either had many experienced players or a wave of young players coming through. This is evident in the experience of the likes of Charlton, Keddell, Thompson etc who have all played plenty of international hockey despite their young age as they have been in and around the team for a few years.
While they may have stumbled at the final hurdle in Argentina, Rose Keddell's nomination for the 2015 FIH Rising Star award is a nod of approval for this team. I'd argue that Punt should have got a nomination for the top award and that there's a few other rising stars who at least deserve a nomination alongside Keddell, but the fact that the one FIH award nomination for the Black Sticks came in the 'Rising Star' category should sum up this Black Sticks team for people with limited hockey knowledge.
In summary, the Black Sticks ladies were fantastic in Argentina and the best thing is that there's plenty of improvement or growth to come before the Rio Olympics.
As for the Black Sticks men, well this is funky...
Looking at the countries who have qualified for the Rio Olympics ahead of the Black Sticks men does make me sad, however that 12th spot is still open and we're waiting for word from South Africa/FIH on what will happen. We can hold hope that the Black Sticks could still work their way into the Rio Olympics, from which I still believe they could do the unthinkable and win a medal, but until we know for sure we must roll on as we are with the Black Sticks men licking their Olympic wounds.
My optimism around the women's team is matched by my optimism for the men, even though they are in vastly different positions. The men's team still has a collection of the world's best hockey players and like the ladies, there's a crop of youngish players who have quickly established themselves in international hockey. This will ensure that whether the men make it to Rio or not, they'll be a very tough team to beat over the next five years.
What could hold the men's team back is that their funding and ability to improve - matching other countries who are far better resourced - is at risk. This could unfortunately set the Black Sticks men back when they should be rolling forward.