The 2019 FIH Pro League, the first ever FIH Pro League, gets underway for Aotearoa in Auckland on Sunday with the kiwis hosting Netherlands. This means that both Black Sticks teams will play against their Dutch counterparts and you can only imagine how exciting it is to have perhaps the best hockey nation in Aotearoa, let alone playing games back to back at the same venue.
First up are the lads at 2:40pm and coach Darren Smith has named a group of 18 who will form the team to face Netherlands. From the World Cup squad, Dom Dixon comes as what will most likely be the back up goal-keeper role, replacing Richard Joyce, while Corey Bennett, Hayden Phillips and Dominic Newman are also absent. In comes David Brydon to add defensive depth, along with Mac Wilcox and Dylan Thomas, both of whom I suspect will get their minutes up front.
Otherwise the usual suspects are there for the Black Sticks Men and rather than lumping players into defenders, midfielders etc, I'd rather suggest that we keep an eye on how players move between these roles. For example, at the World Cup, Arun Panchia spent a fair amount of time playing in the midfield in a similar role to Nic Woods and it is then weird to label Kane Russell as a defender when he's a key attacking figure pushing up high on the right flank.
Skipper Blair Tarrant and Shea McAleese will anchor the defence, no doubt about that. Same goes up front with Stephen Jenness a key lad sniping opportunities and his combination with Jared Panchia and George Muir will be especially intriguing as they are starting to gain chemistry through repetition at the international level.
While the likes of Arun Panchia and Woods will slide up into midfield roles, look for Hugo Inglis to drop deeper from his striker position where he can receive the ball and dabble in some play-making. Inglis and Marcus Child are the key creator through the middle channel and that pizzazz will be crucial in breaking down the Dutch defence.
For the ladies, 18 players have also been named by coach Sean Dancer who will look to maintain the flow from the Mark Hager era. After a brief return to the Black Sticks, Anita McLaren is out of this initial squad as well as Lulu Tuilotolava, Sam Harrison and Madison Doar from the World Cup squad. Kirsten Pearce is a notable inclusion after missing the World Cup, while possible debutant Olivia Shannon is joined by Megan Hull and Tessa Jopp as other inclusions.
It's all about how the Black Sticks Women move forward from that weird kerfuffle of the past few months and whether there is any dramatic change in how Dancer has the team operating. As I've said a few times, Dancer has developed as a coach under Hager and while he will have his own style, I don't expect there to be anything crazy.
Up against an almighty Dutch team, Aotearoa's key here will be there defence and whether they are able to disrupt the Dutch passing combinations. One aspect of their play that wasn't quite as good as it needed to be under Hager, was the potency of the strikers and without players who could create something from nothing, this wasn't completely the fault of Hager.
The kiwis do have a strong defensive core and I'm most interested in how Dancer operates with Stacey Michelsen. Michelsen has dazzling skills, yet opponents know all about these skills and adequately prepare by stacking their defensive areas around Michelsen with numbers. I'd like to see more passing combinations, especially with Sam Charlton and Rose Keddell to get Michelsen into space and vary how the kiwis attack.
Every game is going to be tough for both Black Sticks teams and there is no greater challenge that taking on the Dutch first up. With that in mind, it's very realistic that we come away from this weekend with two losses; be prepared for that. Anything more than that will be fantastic and any slither of momentum would be ideal ahead of next week's games vs Belgium.
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Peace and love 27.