Free Man Hockey: Black Sticks Women In Brussels #5

 Not 8.2 seconds :(

Not 8.2 seconds :(

Winning the World Hockey League Semi Final in Brussels would have been Aotearoa's main objective, obviously. I suspect that exposing this Black Sticks Women to an international tournament, thus leveling-up from home series with younger squads, wasn't too far behind.

After battling hard to finish 1-1 against the Dutch, the kiwis appeared to win a penalty shoot-out, only to lose the shoot-out. Sam Charlton's game-winning shoot-out attempt offered a brief moment of joy but this was scratched as the ball crossed the goal-line a smidge after the 8 second shot clock finished, ruling the goal out.

Netherlands then came back as they had done to force the shoot-out and scored their attempts, while Ella Gunson missed hers to give the Dutch a spot in the final. They'll face China who defeated South Korea 3-1, meaning the kiwis will play South Korea in the 3rd/4th game Monday morning NZT. 

In that regard this was a disappointing result and the Black Sticks didn't help themselves after taking a 1-0 lead. They kept turning the ball over coming out of defence and this wasn't skipper Stacey Michelsen finest 20-25 minutes of hockey as she was responsible for a few of those turnovers. This was compounded by other moments of ill-discipline with the Dutch piling the pressure on; Brooke Neal gave away a somewhat silly penalty corner as she played on after the Dutch were given a free hit, while Liz Thompson (yellow) and Kelsey Smith (green) left the kiwis playing much of the final quarter with 10 players.

This came after Kirsten Pearce scored a slick goal to give the kiwis the lead. Michelsen lives by the sword and kinda died by the sword in those final moments, but her attacking prowess saw her find space down the right and deliver a strong pass across the field to Charlton who trapped the ball on her reverse, then smacked a crisp reverse pass flat along the turf for Pearce to score.

Aotearoa had threatened in such moments throughout the game and after the Dutch got their goal, their best opportunities to snatch a winner came via counter-attacking opportunities as the kiwis repelled Dutch attacking raids. Much of these counter-attacks started and then stopped thanks to a Black Stick forcing a pass, trying to thread the needle and the one time they connected a few of those passes together, they scored. 

Attacking chances were few and far between for Aotearoa. They fought super hard and it was a typically kiwi game of hockey as they make up for any lack in experience and composure with pure effort. With the bigger picture in mind that's very encouraging as this is still a young group, in a post-Olympic year, only that this is a level or two up from the kids Hager had picked for series' earlier in the year. 

That was why I was rather intrigued as to how Aotearoa would close out the game after going a goal up. They conceded a goal and allowed Netherlands plenty of good possession, that's expected though as the Dutch strung short, sharp passes together all game and it's not as though anything changed after the kiwis took the lead. What did change for the second half was Hager swapping out goalie Sally Rutherford for Grace O'Hanlon and with that development vibe in mind, O'Hanlon's performance was perhaps the most encouraging aspect of this whole tournament.

O'Hanlon made numerous saves as the Dutch looked for an equalizer and a winner. While she couldn't stop a drag-flick from Caia van Maasakker going into the top right corner, she made a great save with her glove moments before as van Maasakker flicked bottom left. O'Hanlon blocked a funky deflection and cleared the ball in the aftermath as she not only made a crucial save and then followed up to stop any follow-up shots, O'Hanlon did so with the game on the line and then also looked impressive in the shoot-out; had Charlton's shot been a 0.1 second earlier, O'Hanlon would have played a huge role in a Black Sticks win.

And Hager deliberately swapped the experienced Rutherford out for the younger O'Hanlon, for the second half of a semi final against the team who I expect to win the final. On the surface that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, yet considering that O'Hanlon is likely to play a major role in goal for the Black Sticks moving forward, this was a wise coaching move from Hager.

The kiwis lost, but O'Hanlon played a star role in goal.

Charlton was also impressive and was clearly the classiest kiwi on the park. Playing in the middle, Charlton not only rips in on defence and epitomises the work ethic of the kiwis but her ability to create with vision and a variety of passes stands out. 

Everyone toiled hard and it's hard to find fault in a kiwi hockey team maintaining such a high level of effort, desire and work rate that was largely the reason they finished 1-1 with Netherlands. That's the Black Sticks foundation and it's why they are such a tough opponent for any international team, to win tournaments and make the next leap forward though they need that splash of class, execution and x-factor. 

Michelsen for example has plenty of that and other teams are well aware of the threat she poses, so they put more effort into shutting her down; a gang of Dutch defenders were always waiting for her in-field as they know she'll cut back in off the right. Without the speed of Anita McLaren, the all-round ability of Kayla Whitelock and the finishing of Gemma McCaw, Michelsen becomes the main/only weapon and the Dutch were all over that.

There's the 3rd/4th game tomorrow, I'm already excited to see what steps this team takes after this tournament under Hager. There's the World Cup in Aotearoa on the horizon and Hager has to find more attacking impetus or x-factor to go with that world-class effort. Given that they have a strong defence, a fine young goalie, a decent penalty corner bracket and the likes of Michelsen and Charlton, it won't take much but it's hard to see the kiwis being a legit top-three team (which they damn well can be) based mainly on defence and counter-attacks.

Perhaps the pieces are already in the squad? Kelsey Smith is a livewire who is always around the balls and makes things happen, while the striking group of Pearce, Sam Harrison and Olivia Merry is balanced and could development into a world-class striking line. 

Perhaps those pieces aren't in this squad? McCaw and McLaren may or may not come back at some stage, Rose Keddell wasn't in this squad and Hager has given many youngsters an opportunity so he'll know better than anyone which young players could give this squad what it needs.

Either way, it only takes a minor change or two. Whether that's switching a few style things up and simply spending more time building passing patterns and what not, or if it's the injection of a few players, these are minor changes. And when you've got your sight set on being the best in the world, minor changes on top of an impressive (and improving) defence and work-rate is all it takes.

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