Hockey: Black Sticks enjoying time in the light

By Terry Maddaford

Kayla Sharland is a 120-plus international veteran for the Black Sticks. Photo / Kenny Rodger
Kayla Sharland is a 120-plus international veteran for the Black Sticks. Photo / Kenny Rodger

Winning a Commonwealth Games silver medal might not have brought instant stardom for Black Sticks captain Kayla Sharland but she has quickly became recognisable as the face of her sport.

A reluctant hero perhaps, but she does admit, "it's good, I think".

She accepts she has become a lot more recognisable since leading the team in that edge-of-the-seat New Delhi final eventually lost on penalty strokes to Australia.

New Zealand hockey teams have tended to fly under the radar when compared with, for example, the netballers, but Sharland hopes the resurgence under coach Mark Hager might lead to a higher profile.

"Since coming back from the Games more people have recognised me," admits Sharland, a 120-plus international veteran. "Mum has noticed it in Palmerston North [her hometown].

"Things like this are definitely good for our sport. Using us as athletes to help build the profile is a natural step."

While hockey, especially in New Zealand, remains very much an amateur sport, Sharland says the chance to play in Europe has opened doors and given players some much-needed financial support.

But she has never got rich from playing the sport she loves.

"I don't regret one minute of it, but I go through times when I wish I had some money and a real job," said the popular Sharland, who sat a sports marketing paper last month. "I still have four more to go."

Like her teammates, she will be back in Auckland in February to build up for her next hockey assignment. "It makes it tough financially."

After first playing as a 7-year-old - after failing to get into her primary school's netball team - and then going through the grades, Sharland made her international debut, ironically in a rare test (against Canada) in Palmerston North.

But she estimates since that debut as an 18-year-old in 2003 she has missed almost as many internationals as she has played through injury, troubled by a bothersome knee and its various complications.

Sharland said she is happy to be part of a team without individual stars.

"I played with Suzie [Muirhead] and Di [Weavers] when they were deservedly seen as stars but now we have a group of players who all want to put their hands up. Having one go-to player makes it easy to shut down."

Hager has insisted he has a number of players capable of filling that standout role but prefers to see that responsibility shared.

Sharland, who has played internationally under Australians Ian Rutledge and Hager and local stalwart Kevin Towns, all experiences she has enjoyed, says each had different styles and personalities.

"More than anything, though, I think the new rules, particularly the free pass, has helped us.

"That favours the more attacking teams and I feel we are becoming that."

Of suggestions the Black Sticks can become a top four team by the time of the 2012 London Olympics, Sharland has no doubts.

"The European teams are worried about us. They can see what Mark has done and what we can do with what is still a very young squad," said Sharland.

"We just need to play more top six teams."

- NZ Herald

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