Both Black Sticks squads for the upcoming Commonwealth Games were named during the week and while the women were torched over in Argentina and the lads struggled in their Four Nations tournament earlier this year, they'll both be eyeing up some sort of medal on the Gold Coast. Series' and mini-tournaments serve as preparation for the major tournaments in 2018, here's hoping coaches Mark Hager and Darren Smith have sussed out their weaker points for an exciting Com Games.
What played a hefty role in either team not performing at their best to start 2018 were the squads selected. Smith went with an extended squad of players for the Four Nations, which not only threw inexperienced players into the cauldron of international hockey but the constant rotation wasn't ideal for cohesion and chemistry. The women went to Argentina effectively competing for Com Games selection and Hager has narrowed down an expanded squad - not as big as Smith's Four Nations squad - for the Com Games.
Simon Child and Blair Hilton are still out injured, while Blair Tarrant is another major absence via injury. Tarrant usually captains the team in Child's absence, is a key cog in the defensive unit and while it was unlikely that Child or Hilton would be considered, Tarrant has featured consistently for the national team around his commitments with Rotterdam in Netherlands.
This presents an opportunity for Arun Panchia to lead the team as captain, while the likes of Hugo Inglis, Stephen Jenness, Devon Manchester (GK), Shea McAleese, George Muir, Jared Panchia, Marcus Child, Kane Russell, Nick Ross and Nic Woods have formed the nucleus of the Black Sticks Men's program since the Olympics.
Aidan Sarikaya is the funky selection as he's only come into contention in recent months and has stood out since making his debut as a skillful midfielder, who also offers some power and oomph in the middle of the park. The play-making combination of Sarikaya and Child in advanced midfield positions will be a low key enticing prospect, with Child settling into his midfield role post-Olympics.
Players who were in the Four Nations squad, but not the Com Games squad are: David Brydon, George Enerson (GK), Daniel Harris, Leo Mitai-Wells and Brad Read. Corey Bennett comes into the squad having not featured in the Four Nations.
Here's the Black Sticks Men's Commonwealth Games squad, with my expected positions and some sort of depth chart...
Goalkeepers: Devon Manchester, Richard Joyce.
Defenders: Arun Panchia, Shea McAleese, Kane Russell, Nic Woods, Corey Bennett, Dane Lett, Harry Miskimmin.
Midfielders: Marcus Child, Nick Ross, George Muir, Hayden Phillips, Aidan Sarikaya.
Strikers: Hugo Inglis, Stephen Jenness, Jared Panchia, Dominic Newman.
(Nic Woods often operates as the deepest midfielder, George Muir is the likeliest midfielder to boost the depth of strikers)
Having returned for the series in Argentina, Anita McLaren has been named for the Com Games with Stacey Michelsen remaining the captain. The core group that led the Black Sticks Women to the final of last year's Hockey World League Final will once again form a formidable defensive/midfield unit for the kiwis with McLaren, Michelsen, Sam Charlton, Ella Gunson, Rose Keddell, Pippa Hayward, Brooke Neal and Liz Thompson selected.
That group is a point of difference for the Black Sticks and with Sally Rutherford between the pipes, Aotearoa's medal hopes will largely depend on their defensive prowess and play-making abilities in setting up their strikers.
Amy Robinson, Brooke Roberts (GK), Kirsten Pearce and Michaela Curtis were in the squad that went to Argentina and did not make the Com Game squad, while Tessa Jopp comes into the Com Games squad after not playing in Argentina. Robinson, Pearce and Curtis all featured as strikers in Argentina, which will likely mean that Kelsey Smith predominantly plays as a striker at the Com Games.
Hager opted to go with Madison Doar as a striker, despite Doar being far less experienced than Robinson, Peacer or Curtis. This follows on from Doar's swift rise in 2017 as she went from being a wider squad member at the start of the year to being selected in the HWLF squad. Doar's obviously a gun, hopefully we'll see her genuinely break out and give the Black Sticks some much needed x-factor up top.
Goalkeepers: Sally Rutherford, Grace O'Hanlon.
Defenders: Stacey Michelsen, Sam Charlton, Rose Keddell, Brooke Neal, Liz Thompson, Ella Gunson, Fraces Davies.
Midfielders: Anita McLaren, Pippa Hayward, Shiloh Gloyn, Tessa Jopp, Tarryn Davey.
Strikers: Olivia Merry, Sam Harrison, Kelsey Smith, Madison Doar.
(Charlton and Keddell feature heavily in deep midfield positions, Michelsen could also sneak into a right midfield role)
Based purely from the squads named and ignoring how either team started 2018, there's a fairly legit chance of two Com Games hockey medals. The pure hockey talent is there and both squads are stacked with experienced (young in age) players who have played a lot of hockey together over the past 12 months, if not the past few years.
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Peace and love 27.