There was hope that the Black Sticks men would be graced with a bit of love from the hockey gods. Just like the rugby gods, cricket gods and footy gods, the hockey gods are weird creatures who don't follow rhyme or reason, they just do and luckily for the Black Sticks men and kiwi hockey fans the final they were gifted with the final Rio Olympics spot.
We don't need to get into how or why South Africa relinquished their spot, who cares? Our lads are in and while in theory they don't deserve to be heading to Rio after losing to Canada and not getting the job done, Rio qualification only feels right for a squad that has had me excited, equally as excited as I am for the Black Sticks ladies.
With the Black Sticks men's spot in Rio assured, the FIH (world hockey bosses) dropped the respective pools for the Rio Olympics in conjunction with their world rankings. For starters the men are ranked 8th in the world while the ladies sit in 4th, which is nice although ranking international hockey teams is a tricky task as the top-10 is highly competitive. I won't say that I take the rankings with a grain of salt, it's just the international hockey is very strong right now and trying to predict results based on rankings would be foolish.
The men have been put in Pool A, which also includes Australia, Great Britain, Belgium, Spain and Brazil. Oddly enough I reckon that their late inclusion and a low-ish world ranking could work in the Black Sticks favour here, with my heavy kiwi bias strapped to my back. Australia are head and shoulders above the rest of the Pool so they'll be gunning to qualify in top spot leaving the Black Sticks likely to target games against Great Britain and Belgium as key games.
Spain will be tricky and Brazil will be an unknown. Staunch kiwi hockey fans will know that if the Black Sticks men wake up on the right side of the bed they'll be able to take care of GB and Belgium, such is international hockey. These teams will know all about the Black Sticks and won't overlook their threat, hence I've already got these games noted in the diary as must watch Olympic events.
Like the men, the ladies are in Pool A and like the men I'm excited about their prospects of a finish near the top of the Pool. Unlike the men, the ladies are noted as one of the best teams in the world yet they have been unable to go one step further and reach their potential. Netherlands loom as the toughest hurdle and like Australia on the men's side we might as well sign them up to finish first in the Pool, while the other challengers for the Black Sticks ladies in Pool A are China, Germany, Korea and Spain.
Germany and Korea both fell victim to the kiwi ladies in the World Hockey League Finals while China got smoked 6-2 in the playoff for 3rd/4th, so you'd have to back the Black Sticks ladies to get the job done in Pool A.
Safe in the knowledge of their place in the Olympics and who they will be lining up against initially, both Black Sticks teams can now fine-tune their game plans and how they want to go about chasing an Olympic medal. For the ladies, there's the chasing pack that wants to reel them in as well as the fact that they haven't found their clutch just yet (it's there somewhere, surely). As for the men they have a lot of work to do to ensure that they are more than just the dark horse and with some clarity offered about their Olympic hopes, we will hopefully see some clarity and consistency in squad selections.
Who knows what 2016 will bring pre-Olympics, the Hockey NZ website's schedule unfortunately doesn't reach that far so we'll have to wait for all of that to be confirmed. This will be very interesting though as both teams will need regular hockey against the world's best to best prepare for Rio.