The first round of FIH Pro League 2019 went somewhat better than expected, although both Black Sticks Men's and Women's teams suffered defeats to Netherlands. The lads went down 3-4 after a hearty effort to bounce back from an early 3-0 deficit, while the wahine lost 0-1 in a gritty encounter. While Pro League hockey is about grabbing wins, these two games serve as nice platforms to build on, which along with a vibrant crowd and a clear example of how kiwis love their hockey, amounts to a splendid opening weekend the Pro League in Aoteaora.
The men were first up and were ambushed by Netherlands, who piled on 3 goals in the first quarter. The next 3 goals however came from Aotearoa with Hugo Inglis flexing as the classiest kiwi operator in a sublime dribble for the first goal, then snaring a nifty striker's goal after Kane Russell went round the outside to lay it back to Inglis on the spot. A rocket of a drag-flick from Russell into the bottom left had the kiwis at 3-3 and sniffing for a victory, or at least forcing the game to a shoot-out.
How the winning goal for Netherlands came about will be frustrating for the Black Sticks and also reason not to be too down about the result as they essentially gifted the Dutch the chance. After shutting down another penalty corner, the kiwi defenders were caught slipping as they took off their protective gear and weren't paying attention to the Dutch who quickly set up their long corner, injecting the ball into the circle for Thierry Brinkman to fire a reverse rocket into the goal.
Here’s the update, with screenshots…
As you can see, the four kiwi defenders are caught taking off their protective gear and when they realise that play has started, it’s too late. In saying that, they recover to get into a strong defensive position and forcing a tough shot:
In that scenario, it’s the best the Black Sticks defenders could do. To put a reverse shot into the roof, on the near post is an exceptional shot, meaning that this is a combination of letting the Dutch enter the circle easily and then a world-class finish.
It was a wee dip in concentration, which proved to be the difference between the two teams. Given the context of the Dutch being one of the world's best and the kiwis fighting hard to stay in this game, with a chance of winning, this was a bummer to lose in such fashion. Although the performance of the kiwis was impressive.
Inglis was the most influential, with his goals and general antics. George Enersen was also impressive in goal and made numerous saves, which along with a solid defensive unit could be an area of note for the kiwis as they build around that defence. Also noteworthy were the efforts of Nic Woods and Nick Ross in the middle of the field, which appeared to have gone up a level from the World Cup.
The consistent time together will be beneficial for these two, especially getting reps in against the best nations. Also important in terms of consistency, will be the striking unit of Inglis, Stephen Jenness, Jared Panchia and George Muir. They combined nicely, got into dangerous pockets with their movement and created individually, all of which should be enhanced with regular hockey.
To understand the women's game, it's best to compare the stats to the men's game as there were 45 total circle entries and 22 shots in the men's game vs 32 circle entries and 10 shots in the women's game. Passing accuracy in the men's game wasn't exceptional with 53% for the kiwis and 57% for Netherlands, however the women's game saw both Aotearoa (44.50%) and Netherlands (49%) below 50%.
These stats merely paint the picture of the women's game; gritty, niggly. It was a game in which determination and effort were more influential than razzle dazzle as both teams appeared to be figuring their opponents and themselves out. No surprises there for the kiwis as they were in their first game after the Mark Hager debacle and there were also a few new players involved, meaning that combinations were probably not going to flow.
In general though, there were exciting signs for the Black Sticks Women with Olivia Shannon making her debut and offering a splash of impact. Along with Tarryn Davey, these two stood out as players who could develop nicely under coach Sean Dancer. The standard core of Brooke Neal, Ella Gunson, Rose Keddell, Sam Charlton, Stacey Michelsen and Liz Thompson ensured that regardless of how attacking movements broke down going forward, the Dutch couldn't pounce on their chances.
Kelsey Smith is now part of that core and was a bit quiet in this game, but it wasn't really a game suited to Smith's energy. For example, Davey had 9 passes and 1 circle penetration, while Shannon had 7 passes, 1 tackle, 1 interception and 1 block. Compare those numbers to Smith and there's an interesting story to be told; 2 passes, 2 tackles, 3 circle penetrations, 1 PC earned.
Smith wasn't as involved as Davey and Shannon, yet there is efficiency in Smith's work that needs to be harnessed. Stacey Michelsen also had 12 passes for 2 circle penetrations and we'd kinda expect more from Micheselen in that regard (not in this niggly game though), however this is more a sign of Smith's impact. If Smith can find greater involvement, on top of the threat Michelsen poses and the play-making of Sam Charlton, then the Black Sticks Women can start to develop a greater attacking threat.
As we're all hockey fans, it's important to note the strong crowd at North Harbour in Auckland and how important such support is for the Black Sticks and kiwi hockey. Not only does this give the teams a boost, it looks awesome on the broadcast and also offers Hockey NZ a chance to increase profits from consistently high ticket sales.
After the opening weekend, my gut feel is that FIH Pro League could be massive for hockey in Aotearoa. Getting out there in support, where ever the Black Sticks are playing isn't just about supporting the team in those games, but also about supporting kiwi hockey in general. Now that we have this chance to give hockey a boost via the Pro League, let's go hard and make the most of it.
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Peace and love 27.