Busy times for the Free Man as the Black Sticks Women are currently playing Spain, the Men's squad for World League Semi-Final in South Africa was announced and then we had news overnight that both Black Sticks teams would take part in the FIH Pro Hockey League.
This calls for a Free Man overload (pushing the right-half up the sideline) and we'll be right back at it tomorrow to break down the Black Sticks Men's squad for South Africa and updating how the Black Sticks Women are going in Europe; they've lost 2-1 and drew 1-1 so far.
This Hockey Pro League is a new concept from the FIH which will see nine teams play home and away, between January and June. Aotearoa was deemed as a suitable hockey nation to host such consistent games and this has been evident in the quality of tournaments and series that have been hosted here in Aotearoa. That, combined with both Black Sticks teams performing strongly over a period of time ensured that Aotearoa will feature on both the men's and women's side of this funky initiative from the FIH.
Starting in January 2019, this will give kiwi hockey fans the opportunity to see their teams compete on home soil against the best nations in the world. As fans, we'll have the chance to make Aotearoa a hockey fortress and as hockey-lovers, we'll get to see the world's best talent in the flesh. The idea is that Pro Hockey League will give international hockey a more professional flavour and this can only be viewed as beneficial for the sport of hockey.
I managed to get some thoughts from Black Sticks Men's skipper Arun Panchia as well as Blair Tarrant and Rob Creffier. These questions were done before the squad for World League Semi-Final was announced and while I'll dive deeper into this squad in the next Free Man, the return of players from Europe saw Creffier miss out on selection. Panchia and Tarrant were both selected and with Panchia now the skipper, Tarrant returning from Europe and Creffier working hard to stay in the mix, there's a nice variety of scenarios and perspectives.
What have you learned about leadership and yourself as Black Sticks captain?
I’ve learnt a lot in the past few months but I would say the biggest thing is about empowering the guys around me. For me, leadership is shared and while there may be one person wearing the armband there are several players that lead the team in various aspects so I have taken the view of encouraging others to take the initiative and tried to encourage others to lead where possible. The other thing I’ve found is that during the times where things aren’t going well, your actions are the most important. While it’s important to say the right things and motivate others, it can mean very little if you’re not doing them yourself.
Are there any aspects of your own game that you'll be working on during this training camp?
There is always plenty of things I want to work on but specifically I’ve been focusing on my defending, specifically deep defense marking, tackling and improving my passing variety. The best time I find to make improvements is through our typical training week and camp/tour is a good time to test them out to see where else I need to improve.
How do you deal with all the guys from Europe returning to the squad - do they slot into the same style/structure or does it take time, especially with a new coach?
It takes a little time to learn how a new coach operates. In our environment the coach has a say in a number of areas so when you come back in the environment is always a little different. Once you figure out the messages that the coach is trying to get across and how he operates it becomes much easier and typically that doesn’t take too long which is another reason why this camp has been a great idea.
Did you notice any trends from other teams in Malaysia that caught you off guard or that you can apply yourself or the team?
I wouldn’t say trends, Malaysia is always a tough tournament. The temperature generally varies between 30-40 degrees for the afternoon games so it significantly effects how you play the game. I think the biggest thing we’ve taken out is how important the ability to hold the ball in the attacking 50 can be in hot conditions. In our last game against India, we were unable to do that and India were able to dictate the game and win comfortably.
Which team did you find the most difficult to play against as a midfielder in Malaysia?
I would say India. It was a combination of how they rotated and the Malaysian conditions. They are so skillful and if you get your decision making slightly wrong they punish you quickly and you end up spending most of the game chasing players which isn't too enjoyable.
What areas of your game are you looking to improve as you try to establish yourself as a Black Stick?
I need to be consistent from game to game within tournaments. With my decision making, reading the game and basic skills under fatigue and pressure. With some of the more experienced guys back from Europe a big focus will be building connections with them quickly. All of that along with always looking to become a better athlete.
Describe the experience of playing hockey in Malaysia...
The conditions were rough. The heat was really draining and made it a big challenge to play at a high intensity throughout the tournament. Both physically and mentally. You don't really want to leave the hotel because of the heat so some cabin fever sets in early. It's a real test.
The game against hosts Malaysia is something else. The fans are mental and create a pretty crazy atmosphere. Most of the time you can't hear your team mate next to you because of the noise. It's a cool experience because it's a different challenge.
What was the best meal you ate in Malaysia?
Favourite meal at the hotel? Probably the only meal I ate, which was a saucy spaghetti bolognese. Outside the hotel there is a tasty Japanese place. But you don't want to overdo that too early in the trip! The coffee scene is big in our team. Most guys bring some beans over and some portable manual brewing kits. So in between meals we feed on coffee and get a good fizz going.
What were your three favourite things about playing hockey in Europe for Rotterdam?
1. The challenge of playing top players every week. Also the pressure to perform week in, week out, I feel we lack this pressure in New Zealand.
2. Playing in the playoffs in front of 5,000 Rotterdam fans.
3. Experiencing a different culture.
4. Worst thing, living with two English guys.
Did you follow the Black Sticks and how'd you view their progress while you were in Europe?
Of course I was following the boys back home. I think the senior boys and coaching staff back in NZ have done a top job of progressing the next tier of players.
Which opponent or team did you find the most difficult to line up as a defender?
The toughest opponent was probably Florian Fuchs (German). But guys like Seve Van Ass and Jeroen Hertzberger are a challenge every week at training. The defender I admired most from another team was Sander de Wijn as he seemed to stop most of our attacks in the finals.
Were there any trends of specific skills that caught your eye in Europe? .
Major difference in the Dutch league is the desire to attack with every possession.
Best meal you ate in Europe was...
Best meal in Europe was tapas in Barcelona.