Aotearoa and Australia played out a 1-1 draw in their final pool game of the Women's World Cup in London, putting the Black Sticks up against Argentina in the next phase. Working in the kiwis favour is that they played a typically high-tempo, physical trans-Tasman battle against Australia and they'll need to carry that standard over to knock out hockey as Argentina recently torched Aotearoa in Argentina.
At the World Cup though, Argentina haven't quite been in the same groove, losing to Germany 3-2 and drawing with South Africa 1-1. Argentina started with a 6-2 win over Spain and Spain then went on to beat South Africa 7-1, so trying to predict anything based on those results would be foolish. Argentina will be confident however that they can handle the kiwis and in such FIH tournaments, all that matters is how you're playing in knock out fixtures.
Against Australia, the Black Sticks scored their goal through Olivia Merry in a fairly messy exchange; Merry won a turnover near the baseline, got the ball to Kelsey Smith who then lost possession but the ball fell back to Merry and she slotted it home. Australia bounced back quickly to score their goal and then both teams settled into entertaining end to end hockey, a style that suited Australia better as they were able to link passes together.
Australia's goal was a fine example of this as they broke out of defence and with two passes the ball was past Sally Rutherford and in the goal. Aotearoa did have a goal ruled out from Sam Harrison, a reverse shot that was deemed to be back of the stick and this goal featured some nice passing from the kiwis - most notably Smith. That was the out-lier though as the legit goal and other chances were from penalty corners or scrambles that fell in favour of Aotearoa.
That's kinda the identity of the Black Sticks at the moment. They do have creativity in Stacey Michelsen and do show glimpses of slick passing movements, their goals tend to be come from scrambles, or fortunate touches. This can be great for knock out hockey though as the pressure increases and with tighter hockey played, it will only take the kiwis pouncing on a couple chances to win.
Smith was involved in both goals for Aotearoa and while she'd be overlooked as a star of the team, much of the best play from Aotearoa comes from Smith. Having played plenty in the midfield, Smith's energy and natural ability goes better up front in the striking line. Alongside the solid play of Harrison, Olivia Merry and Shiloh Gloyn, Smith has a knack for doing the right thing on the ball more often than not and offers a splash of class.
When the kiwis need a goal, Michelsen also drifts further up the field. It would be great to see Michelsen spend more time as a striker, where he dribbling ability can be better used to beat a defender or two and not running in congestion. If Argentina are a goal up, or scores are level, look for Smith and Michelsen to push forward and the likes of Ella Gunson, Sam Charlton or Rose Keddell can move up, or Lulu Tuilotolava drifts back into the midfield.
As low key annoying as it can be watching the Black Sticks struggle their way through pool play, none of that matters now. It was the same at the World League Final in Auckland last year and I reckon that their style of play - not so much about free flowing hockey and more about winning niggly battles, along with getting the ball to their play-makers in space - translates well to knock out hockey.
Argentina will love free flowing hockey and they would have noted that Australia troubled Aotearoa's defence with quick ball movement. Based on results so far, a lot will depend on whether Argentina are up for the scrap after an underwhelming draw with South Africa and their comprehensive wins over Aotearoa in a recent series will be distant memories in London.
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Peace and love 27.