Free Man Hockey: Black Sticks Women World Cup #4

 Losing record, but winners?

Losing record, but winners?

The Women's World Cup is over for Aotearoa's Black Sticks after they were beaten 2-0 by a rampant Argentina team. This means that after being crowned Commonwealth Games champions and Hockey World League Final finalists over the past 12 months, the Black Sticks failed to reach the quarter-finals stage of the World Cup in what can only be considered a bummer.

A huge bummer when you take a look at the quarter-finals and see Belgium who the kiwis beat in pool play, Australia who they drew with in pool play 1-1, along with Ireland and India who Aotearoa should beat more often than not. This is a team that should have been gunning for a semi-final and while they did have a tough pool to get through, the performance against Argentina saw the kiwis get out-classed.

Sure, the first goal was weird. Goalkeeper Grace O'Hanlon's glove flew off her hand after making a save from a penalty corner shot, into the path of an Argentinian who was ready to pounce and score the opener. A penalty stroke was awarded and fairly so, which was scored by Noel Barrioneuvo and Argentina went up 1-0, until another penalty corner for Argentina saw them work a variation back to Augustina Habif who injected the ball and then to Delfino Merino who scored.

That first goal was unfortunate, but it wasn't a case of luck going the way of Argentina and deciding the game. Argentina were the better team and in similar fashion to how Japan did in beating Aotearoa, Argentina put the kiwis under all sorts of pressure, consistently winning 50-50 contests and snatching possession away from Aotearoa with worrying ease. 

This happened throughout the game, just a constant wave of turnovers as the Black Sticks tried to work the ball forward but one instance in particular stood out. Rose Keddell received the ball at the top of the Black Sticks circle and had the ball stolen from her, without much trouble, obviously creating a goal-scoring chance for Argentina. Against Japan, it was a case of being out-run and out-enthused, which was again the case against Argentina, but Argentina are a far better team than Japan and the way they dismantled the Black Sticks with and without the ball can only be described as being out-classed.

Their work with the ball was all about passing combinations and linking together as they worked down-field. They were more physical, both in terms of the speed they played with and their ability to dominate contests for the ball. Given that we had seen this earlier against Japan, to have it repeated in a knock out game isn't flash.

There were flashes of Stacey Michelsen magic, or Kelsey Smith's buzz, or Shiloh Gloyn's graft and positioning up front. Flashes, nothing consistent and for every time that Michelsen wiggled her way out of a tight box with multiple Argentinian defeders around her, Michelsen also ran straight into multiple Argentinian defenders. All the concerns I highlighted earlier in the World Cup were evident here, when it mattered most as the ball often stopped with the midfield, their movement was predictable, very little x-factor and little to no passing combinations.

Think back to O'Hanlon's glove flying off, super weird right? I've never seen that before. Perhaps even weirder than that though was coach Mark Hager's decision to start O'Hanlon, after Sally Rutherford had started all three pool games; O'Hanlon didn't play a single minute in pool play and then started the first knock out game against Argentina. 

Maybe Rutherford was injured or something, but she was there named on the bench unused. Rutherford is a better goalkeeper than O'Hanlon, she was the best goalie at the Hockey World League Final last year and other than a few errors in pool play, she was her typically solid self and often saved the kiwis from conceding more goals as the field players constantly turned the ball over; if Rutherford was dropped for a few goalkeeping errors, then much of the team should have been in danger given their play.

Rutherford should have been in goal, not O'Hanlon. For whatever reason, O'Hanlon got the start, her first appearance in the World Cup and it's rough to say that the first goal was her fault, but it kinda was as it was her glove that flew off, inexplicably. 

Hager has enjoyed success with the Black Sticks, yet there was been little in the way of development in how they play their hockey. Their rugged defence and heavy reliance on set-piece worked at the HWLF last year, chuck in Michelsen's dribbling ability and the kiwis play a fairly limited style of hockey. Against the world's best at the World Cup, that was exposed and it can be incredibly frustrating watching the kiwis go about their hockey.

There wasn't just a questionable selection in goal for this game either, as Hager didn't use his full squad like Argentina ... or Australia, Japan and Belgium. Every field player was used by Argentina, Australia, Japan and Belgium in their games against Aotearoa, while Hager appeared to have very little faith in the squad he had himself, selected.

Hager either didn't give the entire squad game time; Lulu Tuilotolava didn't play vs Belgium and Tarryn Davey didn't play vs Argentina. 

Or, Hager used his depth sparingly; Davey only came on in the 29th minute vs Belgium, Tuilotolava in the 35th minute vs Japan, Madison Doar in the 51st minute vs Australia and Tuilotolava in the 51st minute vs Argentina.

This needs to be viewed in comparison the how the opposition coaches used their entire squads, with full trust/faith. In all four games, every field player was used by the other coach and in all four games, every field player on the bench came on before the 10 minute mark.

Those are completely different strategies between Hager and four other international coaches. Kinda crazy. On top of that we have the decision to play O'Hanlon ahead of Rutherford in goal and in a broader sense, we have a limited style of hockey and being thoroughly dominated in effort areas. 

Hager is viewed as somewhat sacred, given that the Black Sticks Women perform strongly on the international stage. Other than the Commonwealth Games though, which didn't feature many of the world's best teams, this group has failed to level up and consistently compete in finals. 

The potential is there and they should be making semi-finals and finals of major tournaments, which isn't even the full problem here given Hager's selections and we need to also consider these results outside of the Commonweath Games...

Five games in Argentina: four losses, one win.

Six games in Aotearoa vs Australia/Japan: four losses, one draw, one loss.

I mean if we want to get into the Commonwealth Games, we can...

Aotearoa beat Scotland and Ghana, rather weak international teams. Then they drew 0-0 with Canada, Australia and England, with a shoot-out win against England putting them into the final. Then they beat Australia 4-1 in the final. Six games played, three wins (vs Scotland, Ghana, Australia) three draws, one of which was a shoot-out win.

Wait, dig even deeper you say?

The Black Sticks Women made it to the final of HWLF late last year, winning two of six games. Those two wins were in knock out hockey and they were soundly beaten in the final by Netherlands 3-0, after Netherlands beat them 4-0 in pool play.

Ultimately, since the start of the HWLF, the Black Sticks have a record of 8-14-5 (one draw was a shoot-out win). 27 games, 8 wins, 14 losses and 5 draws. That's under-whelming and the Commonwealth Games gold along with 2nd place at the HWLF where they won just two games, papers over the cracks. Cracks of an under-performing Black Sticks Women's team and a team that plays frustrating hockey, coached by Hager who doesn't appear to have much faith in the squad he's selected.

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Peace and love 27.