Olympic year is always a fun time to be following the Black Sticks ladies and gents teams, especially as the cookie crumbled in favour of the men, opening the door for the last spot at Rio. With the team that the lads have, they should always be in the Olympics and despite not initially qualifying for the Olympics, they are a genuine medal hope if they can fire at the appropriate time, which has rarely been the case.
With the news of Olympic qualification, the task of preparing the men's side for the Olympics began. As Arun Panchia told me, there was a suspicion that South Africa would pull out of the Olympics and so the lads didn't chill out too much over summer as they knew they would need to be ready for a big 2016. Talkin' Hockey With Arun also gave us the knowledge that there would be a European tour at some stage before the Olympics which is ideal, so is the upcoming series' against Malaysia and Korea in Tauranga and Auckland in March.
The Black Sticks men will play Malaysia in six Tests, starting on March 6th, finishing on March 13th with the last two Tests to be played in Auckland after four Tests in Tauranga. March 16 will see the Black Sticks play their first Test against Korea, with the last of four Tests to be played on March 20th (all Korean Tests to be played in Auckland).
We're awaiting news of the Black Sticks' squad for these Tests, one would assume it's going to be very similar to the squad that then heads to Malaysia for the Azlan Shah Cup in April. These two Tests series' will give the Black Sticks the opportunity to face two of Asia's best teams who also play a typically Asian style of hockey. Both Malaysia and Korea love to use their speed and agility to play an up-tempo style, which differs to the slower European style and the smaller stature of the Malaysians and Koreans presents a unique challenge compared to the physical Aussies for example.
The Black Sticks men need to prepare for all the styles and nations they'll face in Rio and this is a great way to start their Olympic year on home soil. Thumbs up to Hockey NZ for sealing these two series' on relatively short notice.
The Black Sticks ladies are already in Argentina and will play their first of six Tests against Argentina tomorrow morning at 11am NZT. Much like the Black Sticks men will be getting very good preparation at this stage of an Olympic year, it doesn't get much better than facing one of the best female hockey teams on their home turf, which doubles as one of the best places to play hockey given the Argentinian support of their ladies team.
What's super exciting about the Black Sticks ladies team is the fact that only Kayla Whitelock (30) and Emily Naylor (30) are over 27-years-old. Both Whitelock and Naylor have returned to the national team after lay-offs and despite the younger crew enjoying a solid 2015, these two veterans will give the Black Sticks are more rugged edge. Whitelock should anchor a midfield that includes the likes of Rosie Keddell, Samantha Charlton and Pippa Hayward. All are three young players who are established internationals, but who will also benefit from Whitelock's presence.
It's the same with Naylor as she will help guide a very talented defensive unit led by Liz Thompson, Brooke Neal and Ella Gunson. Without a veteran like Naylor, the Black Sticks provided plenty of optmism thanks to the work of their young defenders, most notably Neal and Thompson, so having Naylor back to hold things together will be interesting.
There's no Anita Punt, which is all good as there are still the likes of Stacey Michelesen, Gemma Flynn, Petrea Webster and Olivia Merry posing a threat up going forward.
It's hard to gauge what will be a success for the ladies against Argentina. My interest will lay with the development of the Black Sticks, not necessarily their results against one of the world's best teams. Playing Argentina in Argentina is a unique challenge and paying too much attention solely to the scores/results of these games won't reflect how combinations are working, whether Whitelock and Naylor are adding to a young group and/or any signature elements of their play that we could see flow on to the Olympics.
That's where we are at with both Black Sticks teams - don't worry solely about results. Of course the players will focus on winning games but these are their first major series' in an Olympic year and there's a long way to go. Both series' serve a purpose though and we'll keep you informed as to how both teams are traveling.