Hockey: Aussie key to Black Sticks' lack of fear

By David Leggat

Coach of the New Zealand Women's Hockey Team Mark Hager. Photo / NZ Herald
Coach of the New Zealand Women's Hockey Team Mark Hager. Photo / NZ Herald

Should New Zealand win the women's hockey gold medal today a large chunk of credit will go to an Australian who answers to "Horry".

In a distinguished decade playing for Australia, Mark Hager scored a whopping 171 goals from 231 internationals. Now he's plotting an Australian defeat, and while he admitted to an element of mixed emotions, he insists there is only one result he wants as the Black Sticks chase a historic first Commonwealth Games title.

"I still watch and barrack for Australia, but my job and my passion is these girls and I love coaching them," the 46-year-old Queenslander said. "They are a great bunch and this makes me so proud to get to the final."

Win or lose, this will be New Zealand's best Games result, eclipsing the bronze medal of the 1998 women in Kuala Lumpur.

So what has been Hager's most significant contribution to lift New Zealand into a resolute, determined group, and harder to beat than they have been for some time?

"He's brought in a really aggressive style of hockey," experienced defender Emily Naylor said.

"We've got a lot of fast strikers and midfielders and he's developed that in our game. We've improved our set plays but it's mainly that aggressive, attacking approach."

Gemma Flynn, part of a speedy, clever midfield along with Stacey Michelsen and Anita Punt, added another layer to the Hager message.

"Real tenacity," she said.

"We've always been in those games but not quite made it and ended up playing for third or fourth. He's given us that belief and he's really hard on us to make us fight.

"He wants us to have that never-say-die attitude. It's a young team [average age 22] and he's really enthusiastic."

Hager - "Horry" as in the comic strip Hagar the Horrible - has another big thing in his favour. He can speak with the benefit of vast knowledge and experience. The players know he knows what he's talking about.

He's got something else going for him. He has a group of players whose attitude towards world No 6 Australia, one place above New Zealand, is one without fear.

The teams have met 12 times in the past five years. Australia have won eight but the Black Sticks' three wins give them a strong belief they can match their highly rated opponents.

"The team that wins gold should be able to beat anyone at this tournament, but it's always a real personal battle against Australia," Flynn said. "We know how each other plays. It's just who is going to grind out the win."

Today's final will be played in the steamy lunchtime heat. Hager's view is straightforward: "Both teams are in it, so we just need to get on with it."

He cancelled training yesterday so the squad can sort out tactical plans, rest up and make sure they are primed for their biggest game in years.

Their last meeting was at the World Cup in Rosario, Argentina, last month, a 4-1 loss where New Zealand fell away after a competitive first half.

Hager wants a big step up from the 1-0 semifinal win over South Africa, when he wasn't happy with the second-half effort. More consistency and better transition from defence to attack are his key concerns. Still, he sees plenty of positives in the Black Sticks' attitude.

"We've got a group of girls who fight very hard," he said. "We don't have the experience so we have to get the spirit from somewhere and at the moment it's the exuberance of youth that keeps going and going."

- NZ Herald

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