After tinkering with the Black Sticks Women's squad for much of this year, coach Mark Hager has settled on a squad to try snatch World Hockey League Final glory. I still think the kiwis will be start this tournament as underdogs who will be capable of steaming through the tournament via home turf support and some serious low key squad quality. While I'm not expecting a dominant WHLF just because it's in Aotearoa, there is potential here for something funky.
There have been a few changes from the Oceania Cup squad and understandably so - hence we can't judge this Black Sticks team solely on recent results. Ella Gunson and Pippa Hayward were both left out of the OC squad and have been consistent selections leading up to that, so their inclusions were expected. Hager was quoted by Hockey NZ as saying that "Erin (Goad), Pippa and Ella will be great additions and they have worked hard to get back into the team" and that may be true, especially for Goad who rolls back into a deep attacking group but Hayward and Gunson are in Aotearoa's 1st XI and were always likely to be selected for this major tournament.
What is funky is the balance of selections as Natasha Fitzsimons, Kim Tanner and Steph Dickins are all defenders and haven't been selected for WHLF, while Rachel McCann is a striker. Gunson's the only defender to be brought in, which is fine as Aotearoa have wonderful group of defenders that will hold things down at the back; Brooke Neal, Liz Thompson and Stacey Michelsen. They form the core of this team along with Hayward, Rose Keddell and Sam Charlton in the midfield and that core has the potential to be world class, especially as they are all in their mid-20s.
Madison Doar is the big inclusion, joining Goad in offering depth up front but Doar is 18-years-old and only has four caps while Goad's racked up 39 caps. There's a high chance that Doar will add a splash of x-factor up front, helping out Olivia Merry and Sam Harrison with the likes of Goad and Shiloh Gloyn chipping in.
One area of weakness has been up front for Aotearoa, in terms of having players who can create something from nothing and beat defenders one-on-one, then smoke the next defender as well. Merry and Harrison are both workhorses who put themselves in the right positions at the right times and I'd suggest they are typical kiwi strikers as they will slide in on the far post, never letting a defender beat them with effort or grit. You need balance though and creativity up front is a must, which Doar could offer.
I'm not certain that Doar will do this, I'm just connecting the dots. Doar wasn't in the OC squad and comes into a major tournament with just four caps, as the only lass in this squad under 20yrs. Usually you'd give a talented youngster like Doar time to work her way in, build her up to a major tournament but Hager is effectively throwing her in the deep end and that's probably because he knows Doar can swim/do the job.
How Hager came to this decision intrigues me. He could have identified the issue up front from the OC and gone with Doar because her strengths align with what's needed. Alternatively, Hager could have had this planned all along and he may not have wanted other teams to get too much tape on this specific kiwi striking group. This is based on the idea that you don't throw an inexperienced 18-year-old into a major tournament on home turf for a taste of international hockey, to be part of the group. You do it because that youngster can make some sort of difference and this places some glorious funk around how Hager uses Doar - minutes over the tournament, positioning, role etc.
WHLF gets underway on November 17, so we'll be back before then with more thoughts on Aotearoa's strongest line up, funky players and their roles and general shenanigans.
Until then, enjoy some hockey funk and hit one of the ads if you're enjoying the Free Man blog. We're out here giving kiwi hockey the love it deserves, so support the cause and make a donation by hitting an ad. Chur.