The Black Sticks Men got their World Hockey League Semi Final campaign in Johannesburg off to a reasonably average start against France. By start, I mean the opening half of hockey as they did manage to put together a better second half and with a yellow card in the last five minutes, Aotearoa did well to hold on to seal a 3-3 draw.
Stephen Jenness opened the scoring, touching in a nice pass across the goal from Sam Lane before the French struck back with two slick goals. Hugo Inglis then scored twice to have the kiwis up 3-2, only for France to score early late in the third quarter. All three of France's goals came as they found space to carry the ball into inside the circle and although all three goals featured some quality finishing, the kiwis will know that they can't allow such time and space.
Ideally the kiwis would have been too strong for France and converted their dominance in possession to more goal-scoring opportunities. Converting penalty corners is part of that and Aotearoa enjoyed a string of corners that they didn't score from, despite having drag-flicking weapons such as Kane Russell, Nick Haig and Nic Woods. Penalty corners are the easiest way to convert possession into opportunities but the kiwis to flicked wide, or had the French runner shutting them down.
Aotearoa had a few minor chances go against them with a goal over-turned by the refs for a back of the stick and there were chances like Hayden Phillips having a free shot on goal, only for Phillips to hit it right at the goalie. Even Haig's yellow card was a wee bit sketchy as Haig stood his ground and the French geezer ran into Haig.
The first game is always going to be tricky, especially against a French outfit that seemed to thrive in conceding possession and taking counter-attack opportunities. Their skill, finishing and combinations saw them pose all sorts of problems for the kiwi defence and given the level of finishing shown by France in the first three quarters, Aotearoa did a great job to hold on at 3-3 with only 10 men on the field.
Up until this point we had only really seen a super young Black Sticks Men's team play and with a cluster of players returning to the national team after playing in Europe, this was a funky chance to see how new coach Darren Smith operates. Here's some notes:
Also playing big minutes is new skipper Blair Tarrant, who moves into a defensive midfield role when the kiwis have the ball and then fills any defensive position without the ball. Smith has given Tarrant more responsibility (as he has with most of the younger, but heavily experienced players), yet this is more a sign of a very fluid formation for Aotearoa. They seamlessly transition from having three defenders, to four around the back and vice-versa, or they can switch from promoting Russell forward down the right to pushing someone forward through the middle.
The above is only possible thanks to the versatility of all the kiwis. Midfielders can play in any midfield spot and defenders can fill any hole in the defence.
Shea McAleese went off injured early in this game. It seemed to be a muscle injury and could have McAleese out for few games, who knows.
Smith rotated players as per normal, judging on the final few minutes though and from what I saw throughout the game, there's a key core that is the best kiwi unit. They did play those death minutes with only 10 players, so that meant one less striker but expect the Black Sticks to rely on this team in those death minutes, call it the death line up:
GK - Manchester
D - Haig, Tarrant, A Panchia, Russell
M - Ross, Woods, Child
S - Inglis, Jenness, J Panchia
Problems came when dribbling into traffic and the Black Sticks looked their best when passing into wide channels, then working into the circle from the sidelines. That differs when on a break though and one of Inglis' goals came with Russell storming through the middle. When the kiwis have possession and build their attack up, look for the strikers to receive the ball between the edge of the circle and the sideline. When they attack off a turnover, look for them to get to the middle where they can run at defenders and offload out wider.
Passes were fizzing around the back and this ball speed enabled Aotearoa to shift France's defence around. Tarrant, Haig, Russell and Panchia all put heat on their passes and worked their way around France's press with relative ease, they just need their midfield to trap under pressure when they then decide to move forward.
Two big winners based solely off that French game under new coach Smith were Child and Lane. Smith seems to have given Child a creative play-making role which fits perfectly with the workhorse nature of Woods and Ross, while Lane featured heavily in a striking line alongside Jenness and Inglis. Lane's a robust striker like Jenness and compliments those two nicely.
Next up is Japan on Tuesday, they went down 2-1 to Spain in their first game.
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