NZ v India
Women's hockey tests
Park Island, Napier
ONE MINUTE Olivia Merry was watching them on TV during the London Olympics last winter.
The next, the Canterbury hockey player is having breakfast with the Black Sticks women's squad at their motel in Napier.
"This is what you dream of when you're little, you know, shooting goals, representing your province and country and trying to be the best at what you are and do," says Merry who is part of the New Zealand women's squad preparing for the first two tests against India at the hockey stadium in Park Island.
The 20-year-old from Christchurch is among eight new players - Michaela Curtis, Sian Fremaux, Pippa Hayward, Rose Keddell, Cassandra Reid, Aniwaka Roberts and Jenny Storey - in coach Mark Hager's equation amid plans to give all debutants a run during the six-test series.
Five of the eight are Cantabrians from this year's Ford National Hockey League (NHL) title-winning team.
"I got an email about two weeks ago and I was just over the moon. It was so overwhelming," says Merry who will keep her fingers crossed she'll be on the card of 18 from the 20-member squad this weekend for the 3pm starts to the two tests here.
She is among five specialist strikers but there are some versatile midfielders capable of stepping up to dribble and shoot at the coalface if required.
Merry was in the selection mix for the New Zealand Under-21 women's squad last year, but a stress fracture put paid to that.
The top scorer in the women's NHL this year with 11 goals, Merry feels strikers are a breed of players who possess a sixth sense in planting balls into the back of the net.
"You have to have white-line fever, I suppose, and be prepared to do anything for it - dive, anything," she says before qualifying that team goals tend to be more special.
"Not that individual goals aren't, because some of them can be absolutely amazing."
She started playing field hockey on grass at age 6 before graduating to an artificial turf at 10.
While her family have sports in their genes, none of them had a penchant for hockey until Olivia Merry came along.
Father Brian Merry played school and club rugby, while mother Catherina was a long-distance runner at school and only two years ago ended a stint in marathons.
Merry is forever indebted to her parents' for their support, especially financially.
"My parents are at every club game of mine, so there aren't that many parents with that sort of effort when you look around."
She is the product of an initiative from family friends whose daughters formed a girls' team as they were growing up.
Her Canterbury Under-15 Collier Trophy coach, Kathy Baker, is a name that comes to mind when she tries to single out myriad mentors who have honed her skills.Having never played India or on the international stage at any level, the Lincoln University bachelor of science student suspects they are a side who never give up on the turf.
Merry reckons when several senior Black Sticks players return, there will be pressure on the youngsters to show they are prepared to step up to a new tier of competition.
Hager says resting Kayla Sharland, Krystal Forgesson, Bianca Russell and Emily Naylor until early next year before they tour Argentina at the end of February is vital.
"We have given them some time out because since the Beijing Olympics they went to Europe for two to three years in a row, so we thought this was a fantastic time to let them refresh mentally and physically, to come back fresh for the four-year cycle."
He doesn't think they'll lose their edge because they are quality players who are still training to keep fit.
"What we basically asked them to do was to stay away from hockey, so once all three return it won't take them long to build up again."
Hager says India are preparing for round two of a World League in February under new coach Neil Hawgood, whom Hager played with in the Australia team in his heyday.
"He's obviously trying to get a new system played with them and I know it'll be a high work ethics," he says of the Indians, who are ranked 12th in the world compared with New Zealand who are sixth.
"In the women's game anyone can beat anyone on their day," he says, mindful both countries are injecting youth to scout budding talent.
With India's deft stickwork and dribbling skills, hager reckons the Kiwis will employ an attacking mindset.
"We know to win games we have to score goals, so if get in three or four we know we're going to get in more than we let in," he says, emphasising the significance of shoring up one's defence.
Just as the India men are in good form in the Champions Trophy in Australia this week, beating New Zealand 4-1, Hager says they epitomise teams who incrementally gain confidence from one game to another.
"Our guys are probably disappointed they didn't defend as well as they should have but then they have a new coach and a lot of young players, so they are probably very similar to where we're at."
He says ranking didn't mean much.
"You look at the [London] Olympics where we finished fourth and are ranked sixth.
"The Aussies finished seventh and they are ranked fifth, so apart from the top three any team can come from nowhere and surprise."
The Black Sticks women haven't congregated since the Olympics and Napier is their first reunion since.
"Seven from our last year's squad aren't available for this series so the young and the youth bring the excitement and are raring to go.
"I think the older players who went to the Olympics are going to jump on their backs to ride the young and exciting times."
Anita Punt, Gemma Flynn, Katie Glynn and Stacey Nicholson will share the responsibilities of leading the team in the six games as captains of the day.
The squad are soaking up the balmy Bay weather.
"To have the whole group together in perfect hockey conditions is really good for us."
The Argentina tour series will pose a different another challenge.
"For us it's about building up to the World League in July because that's where we'll need to qualify for the World Cup so it's about giving everyone an opportunity to stake a claim."
In April, New Zealand Hockey plan to host a Four Nations series. Argentina and Korea have confirmed they are attending, with one more to be added.
"We've asked the USA, so we're waiting to hear from them but if not then we'll probably ask Japan to be part of that Four Nations," Hager says.
India, with coach Hawgood and captain Ritu Rani, arrived here yesterday.
BLACK STICKS (shirt No, player, NHL team, position, age, caps): 13 Sam Charlton [Midlands], defender/midfielder, 20, 36; 14 Michaela Curtis [Central], striker, 19, new cap; 22 Gemma Flynn [Midlands] midfielder/striker, 22, 119; 25 Sian Fremaux [Canterbury] midfielder/striker, 20, new cap; 10 Amelia Gibson [Canterbury], GK, 21, 11; 5 Katie Glynn [Auckland], striker, 23, 93; 12 Ella Gunson [Northland], midfielder, 23, 84; 28 Charlotte Harrison [Northland], striker, 23, 163; 26 Pippa Hayward [Canterbury], defender/midfielder, 22, new cap; 24 Rose Keddell [Auckland], defender/midfielder, 18, new cap; 15 Julia King [Auckland], midfielder/striker 19, 23; 4 Olivia Merry [Canterbury], striker, 20, new cap; 31 Stacey Michelsen [Northland], midfielder/defender, 21, 109; 32 Anita Punt [Capital], midfielder, 25, 103; 23 Cassandra Reid [Canterbury], midfielder/striker, 18, new cap; 7 Aniwaka Roberts [Capital], defender / midfielder, 23, new cap; 8 Sally Rutherford [Midlands], goal keeper, 31, 32; 29 Jenny Storey, [Canterbury]
defender, 20 new cap; 6 Petrea Webster [North Harbour] striker/midfielder, 24, 18; 21 Georgia Barnett [Central] goal keeper, 18, new cap.
Note: Sally Rutherford departs on Monday & Georgia Barnett joins the team.
Head coach: Mark Hager. Assistant coach: Greg Nicol.
INDIA (from): Savita (GK0, Rajani Etimarpu (GK), Deep Grace Ekka, Kirandeep Kaur, Deepika, Sushila Chanu Pukhrambam, Kiran Dhaiya, Namita Toppo, Ponnamma Mallamada Narendra, Ritu rani (c), Poonam Rani, Soundarya Yendala, Vanadana Katariya, Chanchan Devi Thokchom, Lilima Minz, Anupa Barla, Navjot Kaur, Jaspreet Kaur.
Coach: Neil Hawgood. Assistant coach: Sumrai Tete.