Creeping in under the radar to wrap up an ... 'interesting' 2018 for Aotearoa Hockey is the Men's World Cup and while much of the spotlight has been on the women for much of this year, the Black Sticks Men are gearing up for the premier hockey event in Bhubaneswar, India. Trying to predict, or even working through the Black Sticks chances at the World Cup is niggly and this offers an overall vibe of an enticing World Cup in which Aotearoa could make serious waves or be bundled out at the pool stage without much fuss.
This starts with their first game against France, next Friday morning. The kiwis are in Pool A with France, Argentina and Spain; probably the closest thing to a Pool of Death although this World Cup feels like it's going to be super competitive any way. A first up game against France sums up this World Cup nicely for Aotearoa as France are gunning for upsets and will have a big target on this game v Aotearoa.
The Black Sticks on the other hand, gotta beat France. It's hard for me to say they should beat France and what not, because we simply don't know how France is going to perform on this level other than the French being eager to step into that dark horse role. Games against Argentina, then Spain will be tough for the kiwis and they not only need to bank a couple points vs France, they'll need the good vibes that an early win brings.
Don't buzz about rankings, which may be thrown around as a point of reference. France will be niggly, Argentina are among the world's best and Spain are generally on par with the kiwis. Now you should be able to see how this World Cup is delicately poised for Aotearoa as all of these pool games will likely be decided by a couple goals.
Coach Darren Smith named a fairly predictable Black Sticks squad, boosted by players returning from their hockey duties in Europe and/or injury. The number of players who have been playing in Europe over the past 12-18 months is a huge positive for Aotearoa as they not only operate as professional hockey players (hockey's still not even semi-pro in Aotearoa) but the best kiwi players are training and playing with the best in the world on a consistent basis.
Perhaps a negative could be that the two groups of Black Sticks - those playing overseas and those playing regularly for Aotearoa - need time to suss out the hockey thing as a group. That's not going to be overly influential though as Smith has simply integrated guys into a settled group, epitomised by the Arun Panchia/Blair Tarrant dynamic. Tarrant has been absent due to injury in recent times and Smith has been able to lean on the OG Panchia to help establish cultural and tactical foundations, now with Tarrant back he and Panchia can join forces.
Here's the squad Smith has selected, broken into their likely roles...
George Enersen, Richard Joyce.
Blair Tarrant, Arun Panchia, Shea McAleese, Nic Woods Dane Lett, Cory Bennett, Kane Russell.
Marcus Child, George Muir, Hayden Phillips, Aidan Sarikaya, Nick Ross.
Hugo Inglis, Stephen Jenness, Dominic Newman, Jared Panchia.
The major absentee there is Devon Manchester, who may be injured or may be out of favour. In George Enersen and Richard Joyce, Smith has taller goalies who must have impressed coach Smith this year. My pick would be for Joyce to start.
How coach Smith juggles the positional roles, especially with those that I've lumped into the defender bucket, will be of great interest. In Tarrant and Kane Russell, there are two strong performers who will play a lot of minutes on the flanks and Arun Panchia may also spent time out wide. Panchia, Shea McAleese and Nic Woods will likely play through the middle, one as the deep defender and another pushing through the defensive midfielder role.
That allows the likes of Marcus Child to start further up field. Although I haven't seen too much Black Sticks Men's hockey of late, coach Smith has previously used Child in a similar role to a typical #10 in football; play-making behind the strikers. Regardless of whether George Muir play striker or midfield, his energy compliments Child's classy touches and there will be a strong defensive core which will allow the skill of Child, as well as Hayden Phillips to spark attacking movements.
If a Black Sticks team has Hugo Inglis and Stephen Jenness up front, there's always reason to be optimisitic. Again, I have to highlight that the same applies to the foundations of this Black Sticks unit (Arun Panchia, Tarrant, McAleese, Russell), yet in Inglis and Jenness the kiwis have two potent strikers.
Expect to see Inglis drop deeper to receive the ball, perhaps even starting in the midfield. If Inglis can dabble in some play-making, that will give the kiwis a funky twist and Jenness is the prototypical striker so watch out for him in the circle. Jared Panchia brought up his 100th game in this week's series vs Malaysia and if Jared's given plenty of minutes alongside Inglis and Jenness, the younger Panchia bro could enjoy a breakout international tournament.
There is enough firepower, on top of a solid defence to create goals from open play. Russell is going to be a threat at penalty-corner time with his powerful drag flicks, while Woods and Bennett will also take on some flicking duties.
Expectations are a weird thing and while I'm keen to see Aotearoa's men make legit moves into the top-tier of international hockey via major tournament performances, keep in mind how strong international hockey is right now. Every pool at this World Cup is dangerous and the kiwis sit in an awkward spot where they aren't one of the favourites, nor are they a dark horse; Aotearoa is a team being targeted by the big dawgs and dark horses.
How the Black Sticks Men step up to that challenge will be the story of this World Cup. Coach Smith has had time to settle into his work and the majority of his tenure has been spent laying foundations for such a tournament. The ceiling feels to me, to be a medal and most likely a bronze medal as no matter how awesome this World Cup is for Aotearoa, I can't see them sneaking into the Final territory. It could also go wrong, quickly if France hit the early upset button. All of that makes for a nervous week leading up to a crucial first game.
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Peace and love 27.