Trying to pinpoint the exact ramifications of the Black Sticks National Squads isn't the easiest task, nonetheless they provide a foundation for either team in terms of the personnel coaches Mark Hager and Darren Smith will draw upon this year. 2017 was a year that featured a bunch of notable international tournaments and series, as well as many players plying their trade professionally overseas and with a few big guns returning to the national fold for the Commonwealth Games and Women's World Cup, 2018 will be a level up.
Anita McLaren had been named in the Black Sticks Women's squad to tour Argentina later this month, so her return to the national squad had been foreshadowed. Considering that McLaren will come back to a team that made the final of the Hockey World League Final, this is an exciting boost to the women's squad and while her speed and drag-flicking ability get all the headlines, I'm more intrigued by her general play-making ability in the midfield.
The women don't quite have the balance in their squad to genuinely crack the top-tier as their classy defensive unit is among the best in the world, yet the lack the ability to create and snap up opportunities from general play. Much of their best attacking work comes from defenders such as Stacey Michelsen, Rose Keddell and Sam Charlton, and while McLaren will play as a midfielder in Argentina, her play-making ability will present better opportunities in the attacking third.
That quartet of McLaren, Michelsen, Keddell and Charlton could low key build into a nightmare for opposition teams to handle given McLaren's pass, Michelsen's dribbling and the control offered by Keddell and Charlton.
Kirsten Pearce's return can't be overlooked either as she didn't feature in the HWLF and she is an experienced striker who will join Sam Harrison and Olivia Merry as the leaders of the striking line. Adding firepower like McLaren and Pearce to a team that relied on their defence and penalty corners in the HWLF is a definite upgrade. They are still missing a player who can create something from nothing up front, yet this is countered by the presence of high-quality, typically kiwi strikers who won't let a ball past the far post and will create through their intensity.
In the men's group, it's all about the returns of Simon Child and Blair Hilton, well kinda. Child and Hilton have been named as extras to the national squad and both are still on the comeback trail from injury; the fact they have both been named offers a dose of hope that they'll be in the Commonwealth Games mix.
While the women had to quickly rebuild and prepare for the HWLF on home turf, the men had a new coach after the Olympics in Smith and this wasn't merely a case of Smith having to learn about his new group of players and how he wanted to build the national squad. Smith had to usher in a wave of players to fill the spots of Child, Hilton and a gang of other experienced players who were playing in Europe, then he had to re-integrate those experienced players back into the national team.
Simply put; not only was Smith sussing out this international coaching gig, he spent a year working with roughly 30 different players.
This is nothing but exciting as there's a large pool of players who have international experience now and there is immense competition for spots in the strongest group of 16/17 players. Adding Child and Hilton to the group of Shea McAleese, Blair Tarrant, Kane Russell, Jared Panchia, Hugo Inglis, Marcus Child, Stephen Jenness, Arun Panchia and George Muir would be rather exciting, like nek-level rather exciting.
We'll have to wait and see what series' are locked in for the men and I suspect they'll look to get plenty of games against European teams in ahead of the Com Games. Given the Com Games is in Australia this year, we may even be graced with the best European teams playing in Aotearoa to prepare against the Black Sticks instead of the standard excursion to Europe for the kiwis. It'll also be fabulous to see a full-strength Black Sticks team play Australia ahead of the Games as well.
I don't pay too much attention to the new additions etc to either national squad, partly because it doesn't guarantee anything and there are always players from outside the national squads named at the start of each year who earn a call up. In what is a glorious year featuring the Commonwealth Games and World Cups, these squads are all about which star players are back, or could be back to bolster the men's and women's groups that have already laid strong foundations.
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Peace and love 27.