Everything for Aotearoa's Black Sticks Women falls under the umbrella of this year's major tournaments, adding a wee bit of context to this series against Argentina. Aotearoa headed to Argentina having stormed their way through the the Hockey World League Final final in Auckland late last year and in theory, they should have been able to roll that into a competitive series against Argentina.
Instead, Aotearoa got smoked. They return to Aotearoa with a 4-1 series loss, having won the third Test which was also Anita McLaren's 250th cap and while you can link the dots of the kiwis rallying for McLaren, the scrappy third game played right into the hands of the Black Sticks. Overall, the Black Sticks went down 17-4 in this series and if they play this way in the Commonwealth Games, even getting close to a medal will be a stretch.
It is however important to note that the Black Sticks didn't have the luxury that Argentina had of being deep in a home summer of action. Prior to hosting Aotearoa, Argentina played six Tests against Belgium and five Tests against Great Britain, then the Black Sticks showed up for their first major series since the HWLF. This is excessively evident in the performances and with the context of the Commonwealth Games in mind, such a series isn't quite as much about results as it is learning and building.
Countering that though was how the Black Sticks looked more like the team that struggled in pool play at the HWLF, instead of the team that rolled through knockout hockey to crack the final. I'd go a step further and suggest they were worse, but there were a few players in different positions, with greater responsibilities and even though McLaren was back in the mix, this was her first international series in a long time.
There is no way I can sugarcoat how the Black Sticks performed. The amount of turnovers and really weird, silly turnovers made watching the last three games rather difficult; numerous overheads went straight to an Argentinian player either at the top of the kiwi circle (WTF) or in the middle of the park with no kiwi around them, passes were often hit straight to an Argentina player and for whatever reason, many Black Sticks run the ball into contests where they are not only out-numbered but run straight into a forehand tackle.
The sheer volume of turnovers and how those turnovers occurred did not resemble international hockey, while the style of hockey was also somewhat agricultural. Had Aotearoa shown an intention to shit the ball around the back and build into their attacking movements, it wouldn't have been so bad as there was at least intent to value possession.
Playing fast, direct hockey isn't done easily and Aotearoa tried this to their detriment. There was little effort put into moving Argentina's defence around and the best example of this was at long-corner time when the first pass would often go back to Brooke Neal or Frances Davies and the ball was hit through the top of the circle - where the kiwis would lose possession.
It just wasn't good. No connections, a 'go yourself' vibe, no desire to value possession and Argentina were even more physical, niggly than the kiwis. Hence the Black Sticks lost 17-4.
I'm also super weary of the strikers, who were largely responsible for defensive efforts and did next to nothing in attack. After HWLF I wrote how the Black Sticks lack x-factor and clinical strike power up front (the strikers rarely score field goals), which was prevalent here as well. On top of that though was how the ball never actually got to the strikers as attacking movements always seemed to break down before getting anywhere near the strikers.
Most of these players have been coached by Mark Hager for a long time and that has me questioning my own vibe of the Black Sticks easing into 2018. These players should already be on the same page with Hager and with each other given it's the same core group of players that has featured post-Olympics. This also raises a few more questions about Hager's coaching as he should have this team fizzing and going back to HWLF; the Black Sticks haven't actually played awesome hockey in a while under Hager.
None of this matters if it ends in a Commonwealth Games medal (and a strong World Cup showing). Ideally the Black Sticks will be better for this, there's little from this series in Argentina to suggest that a Commonwealth Games medal is a likely result though.
Watch for yourselves...