After beating Japan 2-1 in a largely scrappy affair, the Black Sticks men made their intentions at the World Hockey League Semi Finals widely known with a 1-1 draw against the Netherlands. Yup, they made a statement with a draw.
It's not often that draws feel so good, just ask the Dutch after they went a goal up early on in the contest only to see their lead relinquished in the final minute of play. The Black Sticks earned their first penalty corner of the game thanks to Blair Tarrant who carried the ball on his reverse, along the baseline and smartly put it onto a Dutch foot. Nick Haig then stepped up to the plate and slotted the drag flick home to give the Black Sticks some sort of result.
Yup, a draw, but that only really tells half the story. For much of the second half, the Black Sticks dominated the game which is no easy task against the Dutch who usually ooze slickness. There were glimpses of the Dutch's quality, they looked to have a bit more polish and class, which only resulted in a single goal, but they always looked likely heading into the kiwis circle.
That was when they had a chance to, as the second half resulted in the Black Sticks having plenty of possession and quality possession at that. They were camped in the Dutch half and were able to build attacks, allowed to hold the ball at the back and then roll forward when the opportunity presented itself. In the third quarter the Black Sticks had far more circle penetrations, 7-2 (compared to the Dutch) than the first two quarters where they had 2-4 and 3-5. Something must have clicked at halftime because the kiwis came out firing and the Dutch caved deeper and deeper into their half.
That's why this draw is important; the Black Sticks dominated but came very close to coming away with nothing to show for it. In a tournament like this, that's always a stink feeling and thanks to this draw they are now level with the Dutch at the top of the pool.
It felt like this wasn't going to work out for the Black Sticks as every time they ventured near the circle, something went slightly wrong. Whether it was a missed trap, a good Dutch tackle or a poor attacking option, of which there were many, it just felt like it wasn't meant to be.
I thought the defence of the Black Sticks was the best we've seen so far in this tournament and it had to be. The Dutch goal came from a bouncing reverse pass, which went through Blair Tarrant's attempted trap, presenting Jerome Hertzberger an opportunity which he slotted. That was the only real blemish for the defenders, which happens nearly every game of hockey so #shithappens.
Tarrant crept up the left flank to get the penalty corner while youngsters Kane Russell and Dwayne Rowsell dealt with the Dutch strikers very well. Shea McAleese is also looking good sitting deeper in defence as his passing game is top shelf, in fact all the kiwi defenders hit quality long passes that flew across the turf.
I'm excited because the Black Sticks not only fought extremely hard for a draw, but they weren't quite at their best either. Strangely, Arun Panchia and Ryan Archibald gave away a bit too much possession, while the strikers will be after a much improved performance in their next game against Korea. They all looked to be slightly off their game and their timing, not quite sharing the same wavelength have they have previously. That's an easy fix though.
The Dutch were a massive step up from Egypt and Japan, the intensity was visible and the Black Sticks were put under plenty of pressure in the midfield, which may be why our midfield wasn't quite at their best. Anytime a kiwi lad got the ball in the midfield, it seemed like he also got a Dutch defender as well and a bump in the back to let them know that they would have next to no time on the ball. The younger guys like Nic Woods and George Muir will be much better off having played a tough game like this.
Next up the Black Sticks play Korea on Wednesday morning and it's tough to read how this one will play out. The Black Sticks have played truckloads of hockey against Korea and both teams will know each other very well. Korea have beaten both Japan and Egypt but suffered a big defeat to the Dutch, so who knows but at least the Black Sticks have earned a bit of a buffer. A win will be what they are chasing though.