2019 FIH Pro League swung back into action for Aotearoa's Black Sticks teams as the lads faced Spain and the women came up against United States of America. Both games were in Auckland and it's a big weekend as Argentina's men and women are also in town to play games on Sunday. With the men drawing 3-3 before losing in a shoot-out and the women winning 3-1, these results follow the trend of the repsective Pro League campaigns for either team.
When enjoying this Pro League from our kiwi perspective, context is incredibly important and having observed the coverage of the Black Sticks in Aotearoa, knowledge of international hockey the rest of the Pro League is absent and this can skew the perception of the kiwi teams. There are nuermous wrinkles to that idea that I'll weave into this wrap of the Black Sticks Pro League campaign, squeezed in before the Argentina games and with Argentina mid-table on both sides, these will be enticing fixtures tomorrow (Sunday) afternoon.
The men didn't have usual skipper Blair Tarrant, or Hugo Inglis and for any kiwi hockey team to draw 3-3 with one of the eight best teams in the world without two players of Tarrant and Inglis' calibre is impressive. These two will again be absent for the Argentina games, while Jared Panchia (goal-scorer vs Spain), Hayden Phillips and Harry Miskimmin are replaced with Dominic Newman, David Brydon and George Muir for the Argentina games.
Squad rotation has been a consistent theme for both teams and my hunch is that this is being done in the Aotearoa half of the Pro League, before the squads head overseas. Not only is it easier to rotate players when all of the wider squad is in one country, this keeps players fresh for what will be a rugged overseas half of the Pro League.
This is only made possible, thanks to Aotearoa's brewing hockey depth and while for the lads especially, it may look like they are having a Pro League nightmare as they are last (of 8 teams) this ignores a few funky factors. Depth is one important idea and throughout the Pro League thus far, we have seen young/fringe Black Sticks lads establish themselves at this level with consistent game time against the world's best; Dane Lett, Harry Miskimmin, Aidan Sarikaya, Mac Wilcox, Dylan Thomas, Sam Lane and Dominic Newman.
Not to mention others who have stepped up from that fringe status, to hitting a nek level with the flow of international hockey; Marcus Child, Nic Woods, Jared Panchia, Nick Ross, George Muir. There is also the fact that neither Richard Joyce or George Enersen were goal-keeping factors a matter of 12 months ago, now they are settled as numero tahi and rua. Joyce has been a shining light and while a few players have stood out with their consistently classy efforts, Joyce has emerged as a beast in goal.
Then we have the immensely competitive Pro League. The kiwi men have a draw against Belgium who are 1st and then if we have a geeze at Belgium's results, their two draws have come against teams who are 7th (Spain) and 8th (Aotearoa). There are weird results all over the Men's Pro League as an already competitive landscape tries to suss out the new format and travel antics. Thus, coming to any negative conclusions about the Black Sticks Men right now would be silly and the kiwi lads have actually been rather impressive throughout the 2019 Pro League.
It's difficult to look a points when there is such variety in the number of games played (which is why the FIH's tables include a win percentage to rank teams), what has emerged as an early trend is that the Women's Pro League isn't quite as competitive. This is evident at the top with two teams having 12+ points (Men's best is 10 points) and also at the bottom with the last four teams (of 9) all having less than 6 points. The kiwi men are the only men's with fewer than 6 points.
The Black Sticks Women were too good for USA and USA are one of three teams who are have clearly been weaker than others to start the Pro League. USA are in fact 9th, dead last and along with Great Britain they are the two teams yet to register a win. Conveniently, Aotearoa's three wins have come against Great Britain, China and USA; teams 7th, 8th and 9th.
Buzz around the kiwi women has zoned in on their goal-scoring and they have scored 10 of their 11 goals in these three wins - 1 goal in their three losses. In general terms, this is all fairly similar to how the Black Sticks Women performed under Mark Hager as they were always very capable of smoking weaker teams, but struggled to score goals and win games against the world's best teams.
Defensively, as per their status-quo the kiwis are delightful and have conceded 1+ goals in just one game. They haven't kept a team scoreless, however in each of their other two losses vs Netherlands (1st) and Belgium (3rd) they conceded just 1 goal. This paints a clear picture of a Black Sticks Women's team who have a high quality defence, world-class in fact and an attack that can destroy weaker teams, but struggles against stronger opposition.
And all of that sets the scene for the Argentina games as Argentina presents the best gauge for the women, as well as an interesting challenge for the lads. Argentina Women are slightly ahead of Aotearoa via win percentage and come to Aotearoa as an unpredictable unit, who of all the women's teams have the craziest results - results that resemble the wider Men's Pro League. If the kiwi women can translate their goal-scoring vs weaker teams into goals vs Argentina, then we will have a better platform for excitement about their chances of sliding into 2019 Pro League upper echelon.
As for the lads, there is a chance of grabbing their first win even without Tarrant or Inglis. Such a win, would give them a timely boost after what could best be described as a frustrating start to the Pro League. Frustrating in the sense that they have shown how competitive they can be and been within a smidge of getting wins but falling slightly short. That's to b expected win a younger group and the nek level is converting good games into wins.
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Peace and love 27.