In isolation, Aotearoa's 6th place finish at the World Hockey League Semi Final isn't flash. Especially as they struggled in a crucial 5th/6th playoff with Ireland, eventually losing 1-0 and giving up automatic qualification to the World Cup in the process. While the Black Sticks would have wanted to qualify for the World Hockey League Final and World Cup, along with it being our expectation that they qualify for such tournaments, the bigger picture offers some nice context.
Over the weekend the kiwis beat Egypt 2-0 to move on to the 5th/6th game where they lost to Ireland. In theory the Black Sticks should be able to beat Egypt, Ireland and France every day of the week but strong performances from those three teams showed how international hockey is growing. The strength of international hockey ensures that if Aotearoa are slightly off their game, or don't quite have their strongest squad, teams like France and Ireland can prove to be niggly opposition.
This is one aspect of the bigger picture, but not the one I want to focus on. It's lovely though for hockey fans as we're witnessing hockey's growth around the world and the quality of those nations who don't fit the stereotypical 'hockey country' mould, is something to saviour.
The bigger picture for this Black Sticks team is a positive one despite their results in Johannesburg. They've shot themselves in their feet as they won't be able to compete on at the WHL Final against the best hockey teams in the world and fast-track their development, but with a new coach in Darren Smith and a youngish team, they endured a learning experience against international opposition.
Don't get it twisted; Aotearoa didn't play well against Ireland and they only really played close to their potential against Australia, to a lesser extent against Spain.
Ireland aren't a team you want to play in a playoff. They don't have the same speed or skill as other teams but are gritty and physical, meaning that when a Black Stick received the ball they also felt an Irish defender, literally receiving a nudge and the ball at the same time. That's international hockey for ya and Ireland slowed the kiwis down, niggled away and with every opportunity that Aotearoa didn't convert, the chances of Ireland grabbing a pesky goal increased.
The kiwis failed to convert opportunities in general play and at penalty corner time. The lack of PC execution has plagued Aotearoa at this tournament as they do a great job to earn PCs upon circle entry and have a fantastic PC bracket as well as creative plays they run. Whether it was a case of Kane Russell's delayed release of his drag-flicks which enable the first-runner to chase them down, flicking wide, or straight at the goalie, the kiwis didn't make the most of their chances.
Aotearoa has the weapons to enjoy a greater efficiency at PC time. Shea McAleese slotted in a deflection, with Russell and Nic Woods they executed 'Germans' frequently and even spiced things up with a 'German-between-the-legs-remix', let alone the mere flicking abilities of Russell and Woods. They should convert these more often but didn't, yet there's plenty to work with and I look forward to how Smith and his coaching staff develop Aotearoa's PC threat.
A lack of accuracy and basic skill also hindered Aotearoa against Ireland, same goes with the general vibe of the tournament. The Black Sticks struggled to receive the ball in traffic and then make an accurate pass forward after doing a great job to build up their attack and with younger players in key positions, this is less than ideal but not a surprise. Even with players like Marcus Child, Nick Ross, George Muir, Hayden Phillips and Woods who have been in the national set up for a few years now, this was perhaps the first time they'd been given such responsibility in the midfield spine and they wouldn't have played as a unit too often previously.
There was clarity in how this group could build an exciting combination moving forward, but there were still signs of them sussing coach Smith's system and a general connection, out.
There were even signs that coach Smith was still sussing out his team as Phillips started the game against Ireland as a striker, after Smith had played him in various midfield roles previously. You also had McAleese starting the tournament as a defender and then moving into a midfield role, plus there was a constant state of flux in the rotations as same games featured more David Brydon in defence and more/less Arun Panchia, or more Sam Lane up front.
This all felt as though Smith was figuring out which players work best in what situations and while I tried to identify a system in the first few games, this changed over the course of the tournament. If this was a team and a coach that had been together for an Olympic cycle, then it would have been incredibly frustrating. As this was Smith's first tournament with a near-full-strength squad, the state of flux and changes from game to game are understandable.
Keep in mind that although the Black Sticks did compete in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup a few months ago, that squad was a squad of youngins and didn't feature the players who were playing semi-professionally in Europe. Those players were integrated back into the Black Sticks with youngsters who demanded further selection from their performances in Malaysia, so this is another step forward this group's development.
A major area of funk is between the pipes where Devon Manchester's stocks dropped and Richard Joyce's stocks went through the roof. Ireland scored their goal against Manchester and while he definitely can't be blamed for a rebound bouncing to a wide open Irish striker and then slipping as the shot came in, it capped off a reasonably poor tournament from Manchester. This coincided with Joyce looking at ease when he was on the field, swatting away high shots and showing nice footwork to handle low shots.
Joyce and Manchester will continue to compete for the top spot. It appears as though Joyce should be the front-runner from now on and if there was one player from the Black Sticks squad who gained brownie points from their time in Jo'burg, it's Joyce.
It's not as though Aotearoa are stuck for options in their squad, hence I'm excited by how this team looks over the next few years. Blair Hilton, Shay Neal and James Coughlan didn't feature in Jo'burg and would likely be in a full-strength Black Sticks team. There are youngsters like Kim Kingstone and Dominic Newmann who will want to press their case throughout 2017 as well. Hilton and Coughlan would bolster the midfield especially and a midfield with them, Marcus Child, Ross and McAleese suits the speed and skill that Aotearoa want to play with.
There's also a certain Simon Child who is out injured and will be for most of 2017, with a chance that his hip injury might prolong his absence even further. Taking Child out of an Aotearoa hockey team leaves a hole, regardless of the other players in that team, let alone taking Child and Ryan Archibald out.
Child's ability to create a shot on goal from a position outside the circle is world-class and without his x-factor, or the space he opens up for other players, the Black Sticks need to make up for that as a collective as no individual can do what Child does.
We are a long way removed from the Olympics now. Coach Smith is still early in his tenure though and Smith spent the first half of 2017 laying some foundations down with younger players, players who form a Black Sticks group of 30-odd players. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, in fact it's really cool that Smith has and still is, taking time to lay those foundations. Hopefully the second half of 2017 has Smith attacking his job with greater knowledge of his squad and how he wants them to play.
Unfortunately there are growing pains. This Black Sticks team in Jo'burg was definitely good enough to make the semi final stage, let alone seal a 5th spot and it was super disappointing that they struggled at a key stage of the tournament. We can only hope that there's lessons learned and that those growing pains result in a net gain.
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