Commonwealth Games gold was cool, a fantastic moment for kiwi hockey and Aotearoa's Black Sticks Women, now we approach the Women's World Cup though and, the headline act of the women's 2018 hockey calendar will be the true representation of what this team can do. Having made the final of the Hockey World League Final in Aotearoa last year, Aotearoa has shown that they are capable of kickin' it in that genuine upper echelon of international hockey and they'll be eager to at least get a medal over in London.
Without taking anything away from their Commonwealth Games achievement, a World Cup is a completely different beast. For some context, the four Com Games semi-finalists were Aotearoa, England, Australia and India, with England ranked #2 in the world, Aotearoa #4 and Australia #5. Netherlands (#1) and Argentina (#3) were not at the Com Games, neither were Germany (#6), USA (#7) and China (#8)
On top of that, prior to the Com Games, the Black Sticks hit up Argentina for five games, of which they lost four, won one. After the Com Games, they played a tri-series against Japan and Australia which saw the kiwis lose all three games to Australia and win, lose and draw (shootout win) against Japan.
That's simply to say that the World Cup presents a far different challenge to the Com Games and to assume that the kiwis will be successful at the World Cup based on Com Games results, is a tad silly. They were great in knockout hockey at HWLF last November and have had different squads for different series in typical Mark Hager fashion, so it's complicated to predict how the Black Sticks will go. The ceiling is high though, semi-finals would be fantastic and anything better than that is possible if they play to their potential.
The World Cup squad features the same world-class core group as the Com Games and this is where the high ceiling, or potential for great success comes from. Sam Charlton, Ella Gunson, Rose Keddell, Sam Harrison, Anita McLaren, Olivia Merry, Stacey Michelsen, Brooke Neal, Kelsey Smith, Sally Rutherford and Liz Thompson form that core group, all of whom are backing up from the Com Games.
Tarryn Davey, Frances Davies, Madison Doar, Shiloh Gloyn, Grace O'Hanlon and Amy Robinson are also backing up from the Com Games, with the only new selection being Lulu Tuilotolava who replaces the retired Pippa Hayward. Hayward primarily played as a midfielder and Tuilotolava will play a similar role, probably in a wider position though with McLaren, Charlton and Keddell anchoring the middle of the park.
The defensive unit is the headline act of this Black Sticks squad, as it has been for the past few years. Charlton and Keddell also dabble in wider defence roles, with Neal usually holding it down in the centre along with Gunson, while Thompson and Davies filling wide defender roles. There's also a bit of funk in how Michelsen plays as she has often played as a right defender, where she can waltz forward and scatter defences, but also features in the midfield and her combination with McLaren could be crucial if Michelsen does play in the midfield.
If the Black Sticks are to crack a semi-final and be successful at the World Cup, much will depend on their strikers and what they do up front. There's attacking abundance in the midfield and even in the defence with the play-making abilities of Charlton and Keddell, but the finishing and creativity in the strikers has generally been unable to break down the best defences in the world.
With largely the same squad from the Com Games, this group of strikers should have the confidence and combination to flex their improvement. Merry and Harrison lead the striking line, along with Doar and Gloyn, while the injection of Smith could be just as crucial as where Michelsen plays as Smith's energy and x-factor could be used in the strikers. Smith has done both midfield and striker in the past, I reckon where Smith plays will be heavily impacted by where Michelsen plays; if Michelsen's a midfielder, Smith moves up to striker.
This sets up an intriguing round of pool games, with the kiwis to face Belgium first (Sunday London time) and then Japan (Tuesday London time). Both Belgium and Japan are ranked outside the top-10 and as three teams from each pool of four teams, goes through to the next stage, Aotearoa won't need to win those first two games, but it'll be damn helpful in setting them up for their final pool game against Australia.
Aotearoa don't need to win all their pool games and qualify 1st in their pool, because they showed at HWLF last year that they can cruise through pool play and crank it up in knockout hockey. They'll need a win or two here from their first two games, for sure and the first game will be especially interesting to suss out how coach Hager has his team playing their hockey.
Again; high ceiling, there's every chance the women make semi-finals and there is genuine potential for a medal, perhaps a gold. Be hopeful, not expecting however. Japan and Australia have recent experience against Aotearoa and if there are some wobbles first up against Belgium, who knows what might happen.
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Peace and love 27.