The results may not be all the way there, however the start to the FIH Pro League has been fairly decent for Aotearoa's Black Sticks and after another tough round vs Belgium, it's time to face Great Britain in Christchurch. Last weekend, the men churned out another low key impressive performance to pick up a point in their 4-4 draw with Belgium before losing the shootout (bonus point for Belgium) and the ladies went down 0-1 via a late Belgium goal.
Black Sticks Women have maintained their identity from the Mark Hager era, proving to be well organised and rugged in defence without a whole lot of attacking spark. With less possession than Belgium (41.25% vs 58.75%) the kiwis finished with more shots, circle entries and penalty corners but were unable to convert any chances. Funnily enough, after two rounds (different number of games played though) Aotearoa has the most circle entries of all teams, without a goal.
The women are yet to score a goal, having lost 0-1 to Netherlands in round one and these are trends that generally headlined their work under Hager. Now they come up against Hager, who will be coaching Great Britain for the first time as GB are yet to play a Pro League game.
Coach Sean Dancer has brought in Alia Jaques and Shiloh Gloyn, with Jaques set to make her first appearance of the year and Gloyn returning to the squad after missing round two. As this is GB's first game, there's not a whole lot to be said about their work and I'm still going to chuck up Olivia Shannon as a funky player to watch out for, despite this being just her third game for Aotearoa. Shannon's got a bit of pizzazz up front and she has already shown this in her first two games, so as she builds confidence we could see her have a greater impact on games.
Black Stick Men appeared to have made significant improvements from last year in the first game vs Netherlands and then backed this up against Belgium. They effectively went goal for goal with Belgium and any time Belgium looked to be gaining an upperhand, the kiwis stayed in touch and the second goal via Aidan Sarikaya epitomised what we're currently working with; Sarikaya's not a notable Black Stick, yet he pounced on a chance with ruthless finishing.
If it wasn't for Arthur van Doren, Aotearoa may have won this game. Van Doren made two exceptional tackles in deep defence, not only were they crucial because they were in one vs one situations but they were also very difficult tackles to execute. Van Doren scored the third goal for Belgium and along with his defensive prowess, his ability to play-make, then burst forward to add an extra number up front is kinda bonkers.
For his goal, van Doren immediately boosts forward after making a pass, knowing that the ball will get back to him...
The GB lads won their first game 6-5 vs Spain, in Spain and the note here is that they enjoyed 72% passing accuracy from 46.255 possession. Aotearoa had 52.5% passing accuracy vs Netherlands and then 63.75% vs Belgium, so whether GB can sustain that after making the trip down to Aotearoa will be interesting.
Hugo Inglis has been amazing for Aotearoa and George Enerson has been especially impressive as well. It's difficult to single out individuals though as Black Sticks Men appear to be humming, with individuals playing their best hockey and collectively, the results are showing. Losing 3-4 and then a 4-4 draw against two of the world's best teams reflects this and there is a fair chance that this nice start to the Pro League gets better vs GB in Christchurch.
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Peace and love 27.