The Black Sticks lads got their World Hockey League Semi Finals off to a nice winning start, getting up against Egypt 4-1. Egypt weren't expected to offer much of a challenge as they are firmly entrenched as 'minnows' of international hockey, but they were competitive against a kiwi team who looked slightly sluggish but were clearly the better side.
Colin Batch named an interesting squad for this tournament, he brought back a few veterans and continues to give some younger players the opportunity to impress. There's positives and negatives to this which will be explained, but there are many fine Black Sticks watching these games from Aotearoa which it must be noted is a great sign; we've got plenty of depth.
It is odd though. Steve Edwards is now a striker, Shea McAleese now sits at the back and Phil Burrows is back in the picture, but in Batch we trust.
The Black Sticks were able to hold onto the ball for large periods of the game with Egypt either unable or unwilling to put much pressure on the back four for the Black Sticks. The kiwis looked at their best going through the layers from the back with Arun Panchia and Ryan Archibald getting plenty of touches, usually resulting in a quality pass going forward.
A Black Sticks staple was able to flourish against Egypt, with their short, quick and instinctive passing slightly resembling Barcelona's well known style. The likes of Panchia were able to give a pass and then quickly move into space to get the ball back and keep the movement flowing, which was in part thanks to slack marking from Egypt but it's how the Black Sticks play as well.
This is crucial when they attack the circle as they are able to do so in many different ways. Whether it's the skill of Hugo Inglis attacking on a counter attack where he's one on one, or if the Black Sticks are able to string passes together and then hit Kane Russell who was great attacking from the right flank; there's options.
Just on Russell, he was brought back into the side and I thought he was one of the best against Egypt. He is always looking to attack with jinks, pops and more traditional skills but he's also a great passer and can hit long, hard passes. Much of the drag-flicking talk centres on Andy Hayward who leads the pack, but Russell is a handy flicker as well which got the goal scoring underway. There's also Nick Haig and Dwayne Rowsell who can flick while McAleese can do it at a pinch, so again, options.
Russell was impressive and so to was skipper Simon Child. He has been the best player for the Black Sticks for almost two years and now as skipper, this team is very much his. There are still the veterans in the squad who have been there throughout Child's career, but he has stepped up a gear with his promotion to captain.
Child was equally as menacing on defence as he was on attack. There aren't too many strikers who can tackle and pinch the ball off defenders and midfielders as well as Child does and many Egyptian players will vouch for that. Child's goal came from one of his numerous steals, at the top of the circle where he hammered home a reverse.
Keep an eye on Child. A lot has been made about a certain Brendon McCullum and how he has not only performed as captain, but the way he has changed the culture of the Black Caps. Child is cut from the same cloth and he's gone to a new level since becoming captain (a scary thought in itself) but he's also the type of leader who leads by example and has an attacking nature. Just keep an eye on this.
At the back, I thought the Black Sticks were very solid. I like the rotation they have with McAleese very mobile and a top passer joined by Haig, Hayward, Russell, Rowsell and Blair Tarrant.
This was far from a polished performance however, it definitely felt like a bit of a warm up and with the result of the game never really in question, it was a good game to start with. Burrows wasn't up to par and gave away plenty of ball going forward, which leads into a bigger issue for the team as they didn't get anywhere near making the most of their copious circle penetrations.
Overall, this performance had moments of super-slopiness from the Black Sticks but it was all good because of the quality of Egypt. Against better opposition the loose traps, the wishful passes and not taking your chances will be punished.
Tomorrow the lads take on Japan, who went down to Korea. It'll be a step up from Egypt but a game that the Black Sticks will want a win from.
The other results for day one saw Canada get up over Spain in a bit of an upset, 4-2 while Argentina handled their business against Austria 3-0.