Hockey: Hamish McGregor on Sticks standby

By Kelly Exelby

Just over a week ago the closest Hamish McGregor expected to get to the London Olympics was via the television set in his living room.

Now, the 24-year-old will occupy one of the best seats in the house.

One-test international McGregor will join midfielder Arun Panchia on standby in London, with both based outside the Olympic village in a London hotel. If one of the 16 men's Black Sticks is injured, either Panchia or McGregor will be called on as a permanent replacement.

Another Tauranga product, Steve Graham, was widely considered to be Kyle Pontifex's understudy but was usurped by McGregor as back-up when the team for London was unveiled last week.

McGregor, who left for Cairns on Sunday and a three-test series against world No 1 Australia, hasn't had time to mull over the logistics of his selection (or non-selection, depending on what way you look at it). His elevation to No 2 in the pecking order of shot-stoppers behind 147-cap veteran Pontifex was taking time to register.

"I presumed, like everyone else, Stevie would get the nod so it was a pretty massive surprise when Shooter (Black Sticks coach Shane McLeod) called last Monday to say I was going," McGregor said.

"I feel for Stevie because we both moved from Tauranga to train with the squad and give the Olympics a crack so it was always going to be hard for one of us. I don't know what was said among the selectors or why I was picked but it's another weird story for me and my hockey career."

McGregor's distinct Aussie twang is still very much evident, although he reckons 2 years back in New Zealand has smoothed the harshest edges. He was born in Christchurch but moved with his family to Australia when he was two, living in Canberra, Adelaide, Sydney and Hobart before winding up at the Bay of Plenty Polytechnic in Tauranga doing the marine studies course.

He and Panchia will be holed up in a hotel for two weeks, able to train with the team but reduced to spectators on game day. Midfielder and vice-captain Shea McAleese will strap on the protective padding if Pontifex is struck down by injury during a game, with McGregor on standby in case Pontifex is forced out of the tournament.

"There's been very little explained about my role in London but I'm there if the worst case scenario happens, which hopefully it won't," McGregor said. "Ari and I will apparently be based with a group of other New Zealanders and will have tickets to all the games. Richard (Petherick) and Nick (Wilson) were on standby in Beijing and said it was quite a cool experience going to the games and getting amongst the Olympic atmosphere."

With Pontifex and Graham ahead of him, McGregor upped pegs to Auckland this year determined to train hard and exert as much pressure as possible.

"I went to Auckland not resigned to staying at No 3," McGregor said. "I didn't want to make up numbers - there's no fun in that. Obviously Kyle is one of the best in the world at what he does so it was going to be tough to displace him but it was worth training hard to try and be better than him.

"I've done nothing different at training. I've worked hard, got a sweat up and tried to be a presence ... "

After a test debut two years ago against Japan in the UK, McGregor's only other international play has been warm-up games and a nine-a-side tournament across the ditch. After Cairns the team are home for 10 days and then leave for Europe, where they play against Belgium in Antwerp and the Netherlands in Utrecht.

McGregor doesn't know if he'll add to his one test cap prior to London. Pontifex is rumoured to be retiring after the Olympics, potentially opening up a whole new raft of opportunities.

"Who knows what's happening with Kyle, that's his call. But Stevie's a good keeper too so you'd imagine he'll want to keep fighting for a spot."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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