Aotearoa's Black Sticks Men couldn't quite get up over the Aussies in the final of the International Festival of Hockey last night, going down 3-1 in Melbourne. While the final result wasn't what the kiwis wanted, they saved their best game of hockey for the final and with a younger squad gaining valuable experience against a young but powerful Australian side, there's a lot to take away from Melbourne.
The first encounter against Australia a couple days prior to this game saw Australia open the game with a barrage of attack, not only putting the kiwis under all sorts of pressure but also converting that pressure into goals. This time around though, the Black Sticks did a great job to control the first quarter much better and held on to more possession, thus restricting the Australian opportunities. They went into the break 0-0 and it felt as though they had achieved their first objective because they came out in the second quarter more eager to push forward and faster.
Unfortunately - this is where they encountered problems against Australia last time - their willingness to open the game up played into the hands of Australia. They settled into their work of pressing the kiwis high up the field with a superior midfield group once again proving to be too slick for the kiwis. This saw Australia put 2 goals in and Kane Russell slotted a drag-flick early in the final quarter to make things interesting. A late Aussie goal put the game out of the kiwis reach.
Russell was impressive for the kiwis, not only with his drag-flick but his work on the flanks in general play tended to create opportunities. A sound defender who has the athleticism to keep up with slick attackers, Russell has the ability to get himself out of a tight situation and to then beat a defender one-on-one more often than not. This creativity works well with Arun Panchia playing as a wide defender on the other side as Russell is capable of bombing forward, while Panchia is generally solid in all aspects and showed off his passing game in the final.
The defensive group of Russell, Panchia, Nick Haig and Shea McAleese was excellent in the final. Russell and Panchia held down the flanks, while Haig and McAleese alternated between marking and playing the free-man role, both offered a wide range of passess going forward; from reverse passes flat along the turf, to over-heads and Haig's drag-flick pass.
What held the Black Sticks back - the very reason why this result wasn't all that bad - was the difference between their best players across the three lines (defence, midfield, attack). In Melbourne, Colin Batch kept a group of younger/inexperienced players in the squad from the Trans-Tasman Trophy and while Australia were in a similar situation, the gap between their best players and those inexperienced players wasn't as large as that of the Black Sticks.
Someone like Harry Miskimmin is still getting acquainted with international hockey and had many bright moments in the middle of the park, but with he and another newbie Rob Creffier lining up against Flynn Ogilvie, Aran Zalewski, Daniel Beale, Tirstan White etc, it's a tough ask.
This was the case across the park with Miskimmin, Creffier and Kim Kingstone getting time in the middle, Cory Bennett at the back and Matt Rees-Gibbs up front. All these blokes will be better for the experience, the Black Sticks just lacked the depth across the park and the subsequent touches of class that such depth offers, to beat Australia in a final.
We did however have the quality of numerous players reinforced; Hugo Inglis and Stephen Jenness are legit world-class strikers, the defensive group with Blair Tarrant thrown in there will be tough to break down while James Coughlin continues to improve and was a stand out in the midfield for the kiwis.
It's important to remember that we have just come off the Rio Olympics and right now, it's all about building the pool of quality hockey players in Aotearoa. Colin Batch has done just that over the past two weeks and the Black Sticks have remained competitive in doing so, thanks to impressive performances from the new faces, but mainly thanks to the top-tier players who took part in Melbourne. Once again folks, kiwi hockey is moving into a promising period and this was a solid first step.
Shout out to Fox Sports over in Australia as well for their coverage. The camera angle behind the goal was tremendous, while their sideline comments/interviews offered great insight into the tactics/strategies that teams were trying to implement.