Another week, another round of FIH Pro League hockey and surely by now you've got to agree that this Pro League thingy is awesome for international and kiwi hockey. Last week, Aotearoa's Black Sticks Men were torched by Great Britain 2-6 and the Black Sticks Women enjoyed their first win of the 2019 Pro League in defeating GB 5-1. Tonight, both Aotearoa teams take on Germany and both German teams come to Aotearoa with losses to Australia in the previous round.
The German lads lost 2-4 to Australia, while the ladies did manage a 2-2 draw and then suffered shootout defeat (3-1). At the moment, the kinda annoying thing about the Pro League is the disparity in number of games played; Belgium men and Australia women have played four games, while both German teams have only played one game (along with USA, China, GB women and Argentina men).
It's niggly to try and assess what challenge visitors to Aotearoa will pose to the kiwis, then with such small sample size for the German teams, it's near impossible. Germany tend to be among the world's best and probably start as slight favourites in either game, however as was the case in Aotearoa's win over GB on the women's side, there is context that kiwis may not know about which can be rather influential.
Aotearoa grabbed an impressive win vs GB, although this wasn't exactly the same GB that won Olympic Gold and while it was headlined by the Mark Hager factor, according to GB Hockey, Hager only linked up with his team when they arrived in Aotearoa prior to that game. On top of that GB were with a few Olympians and most notably, Maddie Hinch who was recently named FIH Goalkeeper of the Year for the third time. Make that third time in three years as her previous wins came in 2016 and 2017.
Given what we had previously seen from the Black Sticks Women and the fact that GB are starting a new cycle with their women's team, I'm not quite all in on suggesting that the kiwis have turned a corner. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the win for Aotearoa was that it came without Stacey Michelsen, as Samantha Charlton captained the team.
Having tasted the delight of scoring goals, the key for the women is to combine their passing flow with ruthlessness in attack. In three games they have only conceded 3 goals and that's a nod to their defensive prowess, which will again be crucial and the cornerstone of their performance vs Germany. Aotearoa has the most circle entries of any Women's Pro League team, with 39 and scored all 5 of their total goals in that GB win, meaning that converting their chances into goals will again be in focus tonight.
The blokes got touched up by GB and coach Darren Smith has opted for a squad without Hugo Inglis and Stephen Jenness, while Jared Panchia also misses out. Both coaches have clearly gone down the route of managing workloads, especially for midfielders and strikers, with changes for each squad, which has then been difficult to keep up with - Hockey NZ tell you that two changes have been made, but don't tell you who is in and out for example.
With their defensive/midfield core in tact, kiwi hockey fans will get a glimpse at a rather funky group of strikers led by George Muir. Cantabrians Dominic Newman and Sam Lane are joined by Dylan Thomas (Hawke's Bay), three powerful lads who give the striking line a more dynamic feel compared to the finesse of Inglis/Jenness/Panchia. There's a lack of experience, so how the three younger lads deal with the German defence will be incredibly interesting and their power could prove influential given how fast the kiwis play, along with how much defensive work the kiwi strikers get through.
For the lads, tonight is about bouncing back and giving the Canterbury crowd a more competitive outing. Prior to losing last week, the Black Sticks Men were doing damn well and playing their best hockey that I'd seen since coach Smith took over, now it's about bouncing back. The women are out to back up last week's win and hit another level, which will come in the form of any type of win, but more goals and clinical attack will be nice.
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Peace and love 27.