While the Black Sticks men's Rio Olympics squad was named back on June 3rd, Mark Hager named his women's squad for the Olympics last week. Before getting any further, it's interesting to note the different strategies in the timing around the naming of each squad.
Men's coach Colin Batch got in early after a substantial training period in Aotearoa, naming his squad and then taking that squad on a tour of Europe where they faced a bunch of quality teams. One would assume that this allowed the men's team to suss out combinations and nail down a few aspects of their play before the Olympics, against teams they'll face in Rio.
Compare that to Hager's decision to name his squad a month later and we've got a completely different situation. The women's team were also recently in Europe where they finished last at the Champions Trophy, however this came before the squad was named and my guess regarding Hager's rationale here is that could have been keen to use the Champions Trophy as an opportunity for players to compete for Olympic squad spots.
In terms of the Champions Trophy specifically, this backfired as the women's team generally resembled a group of individuals as opposed to a team working well together. Maybe the desire to ensure that they put their best foot forward in pursuit of an Olympic spot as an individual, held the team back at the Champions Trophy. It's all about the Olympics though and while it was a bummer to see the Black Sticks women's team go backwards in London, it doesn't really matter with the Olympics the key event.
Given what was served up by Hager in London at the Champions Trophy, here's a breakdown of the women's Olympic squad...
Goalkeeper: Sally Rutherford.
Defenders: Sam Charlton, Rose Keddell, Stacey Michelsen, Brooke Neal, Liz Thompson.
Midfielders: Pippa Hayward, Anita McLaren, Kelsey Smith, Kayla Whitelock.
Strikers: Gemma Flynn, Charlotte Harrison, Olivia Merry, Kirsten Pearce, Petrea Webster, Sophie Cocks.
And the men's squad...
Goalkeeper: Devon Manchester.
Defenders: Shea McAleese, Kane Russell, Brad Shaw, Blair Tarrant, Nic Woods.
Midfielders: Ryan Archibald, James Coughlin, Arun Panchia, Hayden Phillips.
Strikers: Simon Child, Blair Hilton, Hugo Inglis, Stephen Jenness, Shay Neal, Nick Wilson.
When running through a preview for each team for myself, the similarities between the two teams in a variety of different aspects made it possible to lump the two teams together. For starters there's genuine world-class hockey ability in either team, players who would command a spot on any World All Star team.
Simon Child leads the men and he has been one of, if not the best striker in the world for a number of years. The same can be said about Ryan Archibald who continues to do a fantastic job in the midfield despite being a grizzly veteran of international hockey. Archibald obviously isn't going to break free into open space and take defenders on with the dizzying skill that he has done previously, it's a mark of his ability though that he will be a key play-maker in the midfield for the men's team.
The strength of the men's team is their group of strikers, led by Child and it's a group that have played a lot of hockey together for at least five years. Nick Wilson, Blair Hilton, Hugo Inglis, Stephen Jenness and Shay Neal demand plenty of attention as individuals and are all capable of skipping past a defender, finishing in ruthless fashion. However at the international levels, it's how the three strikers move, attack and connect as a group that is far more crucial. They are all quick, skillful and understand each other so they should be fun to watch going forward.
Also of importance is the ability to make the most of any penalty corner and the men's side has a few drag-flicking threats to keep their opposition honest. Kane Russell and Nic Woods will be the key drag-flickers, there's an opportunity for someone like Russell to establish himself as a potent force at PC time with his drag-flick especially. Having two quality drag-flickers is crucial.
The women's side is also stacked with attacking ability. Gemma Flynn and Charlotte Harrison are strikers who will make the most of any minor opportunity they get, how they and the other strikers connect with Anita McLaren and Stacey Michelsen when they roll forward from their deeper positions will be key.
In London, there was no connection between the midfield and strikers, plus there was a lack of cohesion between the three strikers on the field. Individual skill won't win you international tournaments and there was a touch of players opting to go themselves instead of trying to push a pass forward. When they did pass, basic skills let them down and this is where Kayla Whitelock will need to be at her best in the middle of the field. Whitelock is a great passer and will need to set the tone, moving the ball quickly while also always being available in the pocket, to receive an easy pass and move the ball to open space.
This is why the London performances were troubling as the Black Sticks women have a potent attacking force, which never really got off the ground. They also have a very solid defensive group that is full with young defenders who have played plenty of international hockey, yet they struggled to handle the best strikers in the world, both when they had the ball and when they didn't.
Brooke Neal was a shining light and she'll play in the middle, with Liz Thompson likely to also feature there. Rose Keddell and Michelsen mainly play down the flanks, with Whitelock and Sam Charlton in the engine room. There's a genuine possibility that this defensive group ensure that the Black Sticks are very tough to break down and that their attacking movements always start in slick fashion from the back - there's that much talent here. Looming in the background was that Champions Trophy display though and it'll be interesting to see what we see from this group in Rio.
Hockey NZ's press releases for both squads highlighted the experience in each squad and there's definitely experience in either squad, it's just that neither squad has soared to great heights as a highly talented wave of young hockey players has come through, gaining all that experience. The men's side didn't qualify for the Olympics initially - remember when they lost to Canada in a shootout? And the women's team is heading to the Olympics fresh of perhaps their worst performance in a tournament during Hager's tenure.
This is why I'm in a pretty weird position regarding expectations of both teams. I can't stress enough that both teams are in a golden era as in my lifetime, I can't recall either the women's or men's team having this much talent. It's not just the sheer talent of either squad, it's that as two groups of hockey players, they have played a lot of hockey together as well.
Given that, a medal should be the expectation. Instead, I'm hopeful of either team winning a medal, especially as international hockey is as strong as ever.
The ceiling is a gold medal; both Black Sticks teams could catch fire and win a gold medal ... it's certainly a possibility.
No medals will be extremely disappointing. And while I don't think there would be any major consequences (coaches, how semi-pro/amateur hockey is set up in Aotearoa, broad development ideas etc) should both teams return home without a medal - given the talent and ability of kiwi hockey - there damn well should be.