Black Sticks Men Off To International Festival of Hockey

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In digesting what went down in Auckland over the weekend in the Trans-Tasman Trophy battle between Aotearoa and Australia, I found myself simply appreciating highly entertaining hockey battles in our backyard.

Australia were victorious overall, snapping up the Trans-Tasman Trophy thanks to a superior goal-difference with the overall results tied at 3-3 and the way both Black Sticks teams bounced back after a reasonably average first day was admirable. In that regard, we were treated to a wave of young hockey players flexin' and for two relatively young squads to grab two wins over Australia in the case of the women, or beat Australia for the first time on home soil in yonks should be celebrated. This was kiwi hockey depth on display, but I've already told y'all that kiwi hockey is in a strong position.

With fringe/new Black Sticks gaining experience, it's difficult to go too deep with the analysis of how either team is tracking. Besides saluting the kiwi hockey depth on offer, the goals, speed of play, physical nature of the contests and all round hockey funk, showcased international hockey at it's low key finest. Coming off an Olympic campaign that saw both Black Sticks teams perform strongly, having this Trans-Tasman Trophy in Aotearoa just before summer kicks off was perfect timing.

The women won their series and without key members of the squad, they did well to come back from a thumping in the first game. Coach Mark Hager was able to see different combinations in action and with spots up for grabs in a full-strength squad heading into next year, Hager will have a few interesting decisions to make. 

Tomorrow night though, the lads will get their International Festival of Hockey campaign in Australia underway. With top-tier Black Sticks taking some time off after the Olympics, the Trans-Tasman Trophy was the perfect opportunity to bring few a younger wave of players through, now Colin Batch is able to call upon the services of a few more established players in what is shaping as an intriguing gauge of how this Black Sticks Men's team could shape up moving forward.

The International Festival of Hockey will see the kiwis take on Malaysia tomorrow night at 6pm NZT, before yet another game against the Aussies at 8pm NZT on Thursday night. They will then face India at 7pm on Saturday before some finals hockey on Sunday, meaning that they would have played seven games in just over a week. 

Batch used a squad of 20 in the Trans-Tasman Trophy and has now named a squad of 18 for the Festival, including Rio Olympians Hugo Inglis, Arun Panchia, Kane Russell and Shea McAleese. Jared Panchia joins the squad after a stint out of the team and will be coming in hot from Belgium where he was playing with Waterloo Ducks.

What's interesting with this squad that Batch has named to head to Melbourne, is which players from the Trans-Tasman Trophy maintained their places in the squad. Not only has the squad been cut down, but there are less spots up for grabs with established players returning. Strikers Martin Atkinson and Kim Kingstone, defender Harry Miskimmin and midfielders Rob Creffier and Matt Rees-Gibbs are the notable inclusions in that regard with Atkinson, Kingstone, Miskimmin and Creffier making their debuts last Thursday night.

Given how these lads performed in a high-tempo, physical series against the Aussies, it's hard not to like how this squad is shaping up. Miskimmin will probably struggle to get minutes in a defensive group that will see McAleese, Russell, Cory Bennett and Nick Haig spend most of the time covering the three defender spots. 

Arun Panchia joins a midfield that excites as they are all extremely hard-working players that fit a quick, pass-first style that is a staple of the Black Sticks. Nick Ross will again anchor the midfield with Panchia, Rees-Gibbs, Creffier and James Coughlin more likely to push forward. 

Push forward to where the likes of Inglis, Stephen Jenness, Kingstone, Atkinson, Jared Panchia and Jacob Smith will be waiting. What stood out about the strikers in the Trans-Tasman Trophy was how the strikers combined to set each other up, with blokes flying in at the far-post to widen the goal while there's enough individual flair from Jenness and Inglis to break ankles if given too much space.

The first game against Malaysia will offer great insight into how this group is tracking as it's a different team to the team from last weekend. Now there's new faces mixed in with blokes who have been doing a job on the international stage for a number of years and Malaysia will offer a different challenge for those new lads.