It's hard to argue that the Black Sticks lads are on an upwards trend and two Sultan Azlan Shah Cup victories in the past four years will back that up. As the men's side works towards the World Hockey League Round 3 late in May and then hopefully the World Hockey League Finals in November, a shootout victory in the final against their Australian neighbours is the perfect start to 2015.
The kiwis took an early lead before the Australians eventually pegged a goal back, which then made for a tense end to the game as the kiwis took the lead with a few minutes to go in the fourth quarter. An unfortunate penalty stroke was then awarded to Australia in the dying moments of the game, which skipper Mark Knowles slotted to take the game to a shootout at 2-2. The shootout ended 3-1 with Hugo Inglis and Blair Hilton scoring, captain Simon Child missing and the veteran Ryan Archibald smoothly scoring between the goalies legs.
Sidenote; the past five tournaments under the Sultan Azlan Shah banner have been won by Australia and the Black Sticks. The Aussies have won three, the kiwis two and it shows how strong hockey is in the South Pacific.
The final was played at a frantic pace, despite the Black Sticks switching up their style to try and slow the Aussies down. If there's a team in world hockey that the kiwis model their game off of, it's the speed, skill and strength of the Australians but in the final the kiwis had to find a way to counter a team that has always had the nod over the Black Sticks.
One way to stop a rampant Australian side is saving the majority of the chances that they create and Devon Manchester was in top form between the pipes. Andy Hayward's two goal effort gave him the man of the match, but Machester's work in goal was a huge factor that the Black Sticks could defend their one goal lead for most of the match. He then made a few huge saves late in the fourth quarter before continuing his impressive form into the shootout.
Manchester deserves plenty of credit but so do the young group of Black Sticks defenders who pounced on any loose touches from Australia's strikers and were organised. Having lost Dean Couzins to retirement, Hayward was the elder statesman of the defence which also consisted of Nick Haig, Blair Tarrant, Alex Shaw and Dwayne Rowsell. While the defenders are helped by the work ethic of the midfielders and strikers, they stood up against a few or the world's best attackers and held their own.
The work of Manchester in goal and the defenders was made even more crucial after Arun Panchia left the field early in the first quarter with what looked like a back injury. Panchia's work rate around the turf ensured that the kiwis always had someone covering in defence, but without him, the likes of Ryan Archibald, James Coughlin and George Muir really had to take on more responsibility, which they did.
Archibald is magically defying father-time and who knows how much longer he will play international hockey. While he, along with many other players coughed up possession late in the game which is understandable, his ability to hold the ball under pressure against a side like Australia who put you under pressure all the time, was priceless.
Going forward, the Black Sticks looked awesome as they put together passing moves that have become a staple of their play. They could have served up a whole lot more as well with Nick Wilson quiet for most of the final but the combination of Wilson, Child, Inglis, Hilton, Stephen Jenness and Shay Neal worked well together and were able get some crucial penalty corners for Hayward to flick home.
Two players who really stood out and now look at home in the black singlet were Neal and Coughlin who epitomise the work ethic of the team. While both very skillful players, they both look to offload the ball and keep it moving while working extremely hard on defence. They have been in and out of the squad over the past few years but after each having strong tournaments, they should be able to hold their positions in the squad.
While winning the Alzan Shah Cup will have many benefits in itself, the confidence earned from this win should serve the Black Sticks well. They know that they have a extremely dangerous penalty corner bracket with Hayward being one of the best flickers doing the rounds while Nick Haig is also proving his worth. With a young group of defenders who have plenty of international experience and a group of strikers who as a unit will continue to improve, there's no boundary or limits to what this side can do.
Any win against Australia should be celebrated, but the confidence this group will take will be crucial. The Black Sticks will play Australia again in a series that also includes Korea before they head to Argentina for the World Hockey league. We'll check in with the girls side later in the week as they are knee deep in the Hawkes Bay Festival, hopefully they can continue the strong start to 2015 for kiwi hockey.