The Black Sticks men and women have been knee deep in hockey action over the weekend. It will continue this week with the men looking to keep on truckin' through the Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia while the ladies have been up and down in their two game series in Auckland.
With Malaysia offering up some funky conditions, super humid with a chance of torrential rain, the Black Sticks have done well to get two wins on the board. Their first win against Malaysia was convincing, with the Black Sticks taking their chances and defending strongly against the home side who narrowly defeated the kiwis last year.
Winning 4-2 with goals from Nick Haig, Simon Child, Andy Hayward and Shay Neal, the Black Sticks then faced India who would provide a stiffer test. India, under coach Paul van Ass have switched their style up but couldn't watch the money pile up as the kiwis used their extra athleticism to their advantage to win 2-1.
India have adopted a more European style, less razzle dazzle and more structured play which is based on a fair bit more passing coming out of defence. Both India and the Black Sticks weren't overly aggressive, with both teams happy to hold the ball and wait for the right moment to throw the ball forward but just as the game felt like it was finding its rhythm, a downpour held it up. Simon Child scored a deflection from a Shay Neal shot to get the first goal while Andy Hayward then slotted another drag flick to get the win.
The lads are starting to find their feet as a squad with a few faces returning and some guys who got an opportunity late last year kicking on to be solid rotation players. It's been interesting to see Simon Child back upfront as a striker, he's still in a rich vein of form and while he's a potent attacking weapon, his defensive efforts are always troubling dwelling defenders. That line of forwards with Nick Wilson, Stephen Jenness, Hugo Inglis and Child all doing their thing is what this Black Sticks side will be built upon as they chase some major wins over the next few years. Shay Neal has also been impressive, with his workload and effort fitting in seamlessly to the style of play of the team.
That work ethic is a bit of a staple of this Black Sticks side and it's allowing someone like James Coughlin to shine in the midfield. He's been impressive despite a nasty mouth injury and along with George Muir they are building a midfield combo that is able to put pressure on defensively, while also being able to give a solid early pass and not overplay their hand. That combination is held together by Arun Panchia and Ryan Archibald who are the key cogs in everything the Black Sticks have done so far.
In both games, the kiwis have been under the pump with Malaysia testing their defence while India came back to level the scores. This is still a young defensive group who aren't finding their feet at international level, but this is one of the first times they have all played together. They are however able to defend from the front with their strikers which helps the lads at the back greatly and they'll benefit from holding an Indian side to just the one goal as they were dangerous rolling forward.
With some lethal strikers and two drag flick options in Hayward and Haig, the Black Sticks shouldn't struggle to pose a threat. They play Canada tomorrow (Wednesday) which will give them a chance to continue to play aggressive hockey and fine tune their attacking options, while also giving the kiwis the chance to work hard to notch a clean sheet. They face Australia on Thursday which will be a huge game, but with two wins on the board, they are in a great position to go to war with the Aussies.
The ladies have played two games in Auckland and are 1-1 as they head to Gisborne to face Argentina. They came up against a gritty Korean side who scored a few early goals before the Black Sticks ladies fought back to make it 2-2 at halftime with Petrea Webster and Olivia Merry finishing off some good build up play on both occasions. The second half tightened up with both teams playing gritty hockey before Shiloh Gloyn deflecting home the winner, from which the Black Sticks did well to hold on for the win.
They then faced Japan who put in a great defensive effort to hold on to their 1-0 lead with their goal coming early in the third quarter, giving them the edge in a tense game. The Black Sticks didin't loose thanks to a lack of effort, more so some high quality defence especially from Japan's goalie.
The ladies face Argentina tonight and tomorrow, with a bit of live stream action going down over here. Argentina are a hefty opposition, one of the best women's teams in the world so this will be a great test for the kiwi ladies, especially after these two games in Auckland where they have had a taste of a bit of everything.