Thankfully that week of hockey torture has come to an end. The Black Sticks women were beaten by Great Britain 3-4 in the playoff for 5th/6th overnight, which ensured that New Zealand would finish last at the Champions Trophy. Saying that they finished 6th is sugar-coating it a bit ... they finished last.
And while I'd back the Black Sticks over GB and USA most of the time, it's hard to argue that finishing last was a fair result for the kiwis. The ladies are more fancied than the men, thanks to better performances in recent years and a higher international ranking that has resulted in high hopes for the women's team, this is why a poor display over the past week in London ahead of the Olympics was such a shock.
Against a few of the world's best teams in Netherlands and Argentina, the kiwis were out-classed. Then I sat through the game against USA and watched a New Zealand team stutter against a team that they should beat more often than not, as USA did a far better job at aspects of the game in which New Zealand usually dominate. Hard work, passing with speed and precision along with combinations and connections is what the Black Sticks women have built their game on under Mark Hager, yet against USA it was the Americans who ticked all those boxes.
If it weren't for a fine individual performance from fullback Brooke Neal, USA would have won that game.
There is some context that needs to be applied here as the Black Sticks were without Samantha Charlton and Emily Gaddum, two key players who are near-certainties for the Olympic squad. This was a slightly weakened Black Sticks team, although were average in attack and defence regardless of whether Kayla Whitelock was playing in the defence or further up the field in attack, or whether Stacey Michelsen was playing as a right-defender or in attack. Point being that there were problems at the very core of this Black Sticks team that had them struggling to compete.
This was led by a willingness to carry the ball individually, too far or holding on to the ball for too long. The issue with this was clearly evident in the strength of the Black Sticks which revolve around Michelsen's ability to carve through defences from her position wide on the right and Anita McLaren's speed through midfield. I can't stress enough that both are world-class as individuals and that they posed a threat throughout the Champions Trophy tournament, yet it was clear that other teams note this strength and made adjustments.
Pile numbers into the midfield, clogging the area in which Michelsen likes to run into and as long as other teams have numbers back in defence, McLaren's pace can work against her as she carries the ball too far without releasing it to a striker.
This is easy to do for opposition teams when it's the only way in which the Black Sticks can genuinely offer a potent attacking threat. Other than the individual skills of Michelsen and McLaren, NZ struggled to string passes together as they lacked the basic skills to do so. This either came via a mis-trap or a pass that was behind an attacker running forward for example.
Yes, two key players were missing but there was little connection between the strikers and this is a major concern. You can't break down international defences relying solely on individual skill and the inability to combine with short/sharp passing held the Black Sticks back. This will be a key work-on ahead of the Olympics and with a striking group that has genuine ability in the likes of Gemma Flynn and Charlotte Harrison, along with Olivia Merry who led the kiwi goal-scorers, there's definitely hope that this will be fixed.
Neal was a shining light from this tournament as she was consistently making important tackles in deep-defence, unfortunately she didn't have a whole lot of support. A lot of the issues in defence came from poor outletting decisions, turnovers as the Black Sticks tried to pass out of defence and while handing possession over to skilled strikers is silly to start with, giving them a 2v1 situation is a recipe for disaster.
Compounding this was a lack of organisation in defence, allowing attackers far too much time and space, generally not marking effectively. This is where having Charlton and/or Gaddum is a huge help as they are both experienced at this level and have done a fine job in dealing with international strikers. Neal, Julia King, Liz Thompson, Ella Gunson and Rose Keddell made up the defensive group for this tournament while Whitelock also featured as a defender. As a group, they struggled in dealing with opposing teams and their slick strikers which isn't the best Olympic audition.
Mark Hager has said that there's 16 out of 16 spots up for grabs in the Olympic squad. Translating that basically means everyone is on notice and while there's players who are near-certainties for Rio, not too many players did their chances any favours.
A squad of 18 was used in London, which means that there's going to be some big decisions for coach Hager to make as he not only needs to trim this squad down, he'll likely bring in Charlton and Gaddum.
Right now, my Olympic squad of 16 would look something like this if everyone's healthy...
Sally Rutherford/Amelia Gibson (GK), Anita McLaren, Kayla Whitelock, Brooke Neal, Liz Thompson, Rose Keddell, Sam Charlton, Gemma Flynn, Emily Gaddum, Charlotte Harrison, Olivia Merry, Stacey Michelsen, Petrea Webster, Sophie Cocks, Ella Gunson, Kirsten Pearce.
Hager also said that he expected a low patch before the Olympics. It's hard to fathom that anyone thought it would be this dramatic however. While that was probably a collection of the worst performances since Hager took over, the Black Sticks now have the opportunity to rectify their mistakes and fine-tune their game ahead of the Olympics. Massive strides must be made in the coming weeks or we could see this team slump on the biggest stage.