Both Aotearoa hockey teams will get back on the turf tonight after the Rio Olympics as they star their Trans-Tasman Trophy series' against Australia. The Black Sticks Women face the Hockeyroos at 6:30pm in Auckland with the Black Sticks Men to follow that up with an 8pm fixture against the Kookaburras. Still in Auckland, the remaining two games for the men's and women's teams will go down on Saturday and Sunday night.
While trans-Tasman hockey brings with it a certain level of intensity, both Mark Hager and Colin Batch have named younger squads who will compete against Australian teams who are in a similar situation following the Olympics. Many top-flight players from either nation have either taken time off from hockey after a hectic pre-Olympic campaign, settling back into jobs and studies or players have headed to Europe where they can play at a high level and earn somewhat of a living while doing so.
There are a total of nine debutants across both Australian sides with the Hockeyroos bringing in three new faces while the Kookaburras bring in six. This means we won't see any of the teams at close to full strength, however this offers the perfect opportunity for Batch and Hager to flex their depth against Australian sides that don't have the same aura around them thanks to mediocre Olympic campaigns and plenty of new faces.
The Black Sticks Men's side welcomes Martin Atkinson, David Brydon, Rob Creffier, Kim Kingstone, Sam Lane, Harry Miskimmin, Dominic Newman and Brad Read into the team. There's a strong group of debutants there, however there's also a hefty group of players who have international experience but weren't involved in Rio and they combination of the two will put kiwi men's hockey depth on full display.
With Brad Shaw retiring and veteran pair Ryan Archibald and Shea McAleese nearing the end of their respective careers, there's going to be spots up for grabs in the defence and midfield. Alex Shaw and Cory Bennett have featured plenty for the Black Sticks but weren't in Rio, so keep an eye out for them in the kiwis' defence while David Brydon, Harry Miskimmin and Brad Read wil be looking to impress and put pressure on established defenders.
In the midfield, Rob Creffier and Matt Rees-Gibbs will want to make an impression against the Aussies, although Nick Ross will likely be the lad to watch. Ross wasn't in Rio but has 34 caps and will be looking to settle into a deep midfield slot, in conjunction with James Coughlan who's graft in the midfield stood out in Rio and is coming in hot off gaining a spot in the Indian Hockey League.
There's only three likely debutants in the women's side as coach Hager has a built up a large pool of players in recent years. Stacey Michelsen is out injured which along with Anita McLaren's absence leaves the kiwis without a strong ball-carrier which has been a staple of their play. This will open up opportunities for Rose Keddell, Pippa Hayward and Kelsey Smith to play more prominent roles in the Black Sticks' attacking movements, possibly bringing with it a more passing combinations as the kiwis venture into the opposition half.
The retirements of Kayla Whitelock and Emily Gaddum open the door for defenders to impress, although no one's going to be able to emulate Whitelock's all-round abilities. Liz Thompson is suddenly a veteran of the defensive group with Brooke Neal and Samantha Charlton also absent, with Natasha Fitzsimons returning to the side to lead the charge for vacant spots along with Jenny Storey and Kim Tanner.
Trans-Tasman Trophy hockey means that the Black Sticks have locked in regular competition against Australia and that should only be viewed as a positive. The first edition though will see all four teams involved, looking towards the future after an Olympic campaign so any major judgements regarding either hockey program need to be put on hold until we are treated to two full-strength kiwi teams facing off against full-strength Australian sides.
Intrigue in this series sits in competition for spots in either Black Sticks sides moving forward, the performances of individuals and how they fit into the Black Sticks set up will be where most of the judgements lies. Don't sleep on this being our first glimpse of Aotearoa's national hockey teams as they embark on a fresh Olympic cycle, with as much hockey talent as we've ever seen, making this the first step in what I reckon will be a very encouraging four years for kiwi hockey.