Black Sticks Women in Rio: Bye Bye Dingo, What's Up GB?

 Poor Aussies :(

Poor Aussies :(

After watching the lads go down in devastating fashion, the Black Sticks Women took care of business against Australia and sealed a semi-final with a 4-2 win. This puts the kiwis against Great Britain, who finished 1st in Pool B on 15 points while our Black Sticks were 2nd in Pool A on 10 points. As we know (it seems silly media folk don't quite get it), world rankings mean jack in the Olympics and based on results in the Olympics so far, the Black Sticks will start as slight underdogs against GB.

Australia presented a challenge, although the Black Sticks were coming out of the much stronger Pool A in which points were spread throughout the teams. Both Netherlands and Germany join the kiwis in the semi's, making it three teams from Pool A in the semi-final stage with GB the only team from Pool B to make it this far. This gave the Black Sticks tough games against Germany and Netherlands, plus niggly contests against Spain and China to prepare for Australia and it showed, with the kiwis taking their chances with ruthless efficiency and generally looking the better team.

Anita Punt's goal to open the scoring perhaps best-reflected the difference between the two teams as her drag-flick rocketed into the top-right corner. Australia's main drag-flicker Georgina Morgan was 0/3 in flicks and while Punt's 1/4 wasn't too much better, the clinical execution to score that first flick gave the kiwis the edge they needed. 

As we expect from any Australian hockey team, the Aussies attacked with ferocious speed and asked many questions of the kiwis defence. While the Black Sticks have a group of strikers in Gemma Flynn, Olivia Merry, Petrea Webster, Charlotte Harrison and Kirsten Pearce who are among the most dangerous strikers at the Olympics, it's the work of the defensive unit that is what this team is built upon. Despite the Aussies attacking with speed and the kiwis gifting the ball to Australia many times, the ability of the kiwis to scramble numbers behind the ball and cut off attacking lines limited Australia's effectiveness going forward.

Kiwi hockey fans should celebrate the efforts of both Kayla Whitelock and Simon Child as captains of either team as they not only lead their teams in true kiwi fashion, they are stand out performers and have showcased their world-class ability in Rio. Whitelock is the rock for the Black Sticks and she was once again patrolling the middle of the field, ensuring that any time an Australian looked up to scan their options, she was there in their line of sight lurking. I've harped on about Whitelock's work as the free defender all tournament and with good reason as she's a master with her positioning, then she gets the ball and picks out a long or short pass with precision.

Against Australia, the benefits of having two defenders on either side of the field who are equally as gifted with the ball as they are without it were crystal clear. We know what Stacey Michelsen can do and she was constantly threatening with her lazy dribbles on the right, while Rose Keddell on the left also cut through Australia's press a few times with her skills. In the past the Black Sticks have tended to lean on the right side to provide attacking impetus via Michelsen, however with Keddell posted on the left, the kiwis have defenders who can go for a little dribble or fire a pass to the likes of Anita McLaren, Sophie Cocks and Kelsey Smith.

The Black Sticks don't have a strong defence because of the attacking ability of Michelsen and Keddell though. For all their skill, these two are rarely out of place in defence and epitomise the effort and desire of this team as they pushed up field against Australia with every opportunity while also consistently being in position to make a key tackle, interception or ensuring that the Aussie they were marking didn't get the ball.

Trans-Tasman hockey is fabulous because both countries play a similar style of hockey and the speed/power of the Black Sticks doesn't quite catch the eye against Australia as both teams are boosting down field. Expect the speed of the Black Sticks to be crucial against Great Britain as this is a staple of the Black Sticks play and this suits the strengths of their team better than slowly building attacking movements. 

The Black Sticks can only play with speed and a slight sense of recklessness because Whitelock's there as the anchor, leading a strong defensive unit that is always well organised. Even if GB are dominating, the Black Sticks are capable of piling bodies behind the ball and this could present the kiwis with opportunities to counter attack. Regardless of what GB and how they play, if the kiwis can roll out a defensive effort worthy of an Olympic semi-final, then they should have the firepower to make GB pay.