Hockey: Tomorrow another day, says midfielder

By Anendra Singh

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New Zealand captain Kayla Whitelock (above) rues missing the Black Sticks' third successive penalty-corner attempt. Photo/Duncan Brown
New Zealand captain Kayla Whitelock (above) rues missing the Black Sticks' third successive penalty-corner attempt. Photo/Duncan Brown

A fly has snuck into the ointment, as it were, but that doesn't mean the Black Sticks women are out of the equation, if you ask Anita Punt.

If anything, yesterday's 2-1 defeat to China has brought out a gritty determination among the Kayla Whitelock (nee Sharland)-captained New Zealanders to stay on track in the Six Nations hockey tournament in Hastings.

"Just because we've lost a game doesn't mean we're out of the tournament," said a smiling Punt between signing autographs for a a contingent of Black Sticks faithful at the Unison Hockey Stadium.

The New Zealand hockey international said the fairytale script to decide who would be the champions of the inaugural tournament can still happen.

With World No 2 Argentina overwhelming favourites, the hockey fans harboured a tournament-defining match tomorrow at 7pm against the hosts at the Hawke's Bay New Zealand Festival of Hockey to see who would claim the bragging rights.

"You've got to look at one game at a time. Today we had China [and] we didn't win. Tomorrow's another day so it's anyone's game so we can still come through."

Having conceded three points, the Kiwi camp's professionalism would kick in with reviews to ensure they come out fighting for the rest of the week at the Hawke's Bay Regional Sports Park.

The hosts play Japan on Thursday before the Transtasman clash on Saturday.

"The top eight teams can beat anyone on any given day so we obviously didn't put out our best performance," said Punt after scoring New Zealand's only goal two minutes into the second half from an oblique angle to break the scoreless deadlock as China thwarted the first concerted raid.

Stung into action, China replied in the 46th minute when striker Wang Mengyu executed her dreaded drag flick to rocket the ball past the black wall and goalkeeper Bianca Russell for the 1-1 equaliser from the penalty corner.

That seemed to light a fuse in the Kiwis but the Chinese weathered the fireworks with 17 minutes remaining to turn the tables on the attackers with a penalty corner at the opposite end of the turf.

Cui measured up from the baseline to flick the ball to the top of the D for Wang to latch on to a deflected first drive before pushing it past Russell.

The Chinese engine room found another gear, cranking up their defence higher up the turf amid vociferous urgings from their contingent on the back end of the pavilion balcony.

With nine minutes remaining, Whitelock and her troops forced another penalty but China were defiant. Hager relayed messages from the sideline to his exhausted players but three attempts went begging.

With five minutes to go, Liang Meiyu found herself with need for speed from another fast break but defender Jordan Grant committed a professional foul to concede a penalty corner but Russell was equal to the occasion.

The last throw of the dice went to Stacey Michelsen after Punt worked the ball up the flank from a Grant feed but Michelsen's shot went agonisingly past the yawning goal mouth.

"We weren't clinical enough and we weren't disciplined as well so it was really disappointing to take a huge step back today compared with yesterday's game," Punt lamented after they overwhelmed South Korea 3-1 on Saturday.

While China were quick in counter-attacks, she said the Kiwis would like to think they were more fleet-footed.

"I don't know. We must have slipped up today because we weren't on our ball game," said the midfielder who played her 151st international yesterday.

She ruled out complacency, preferring to put it down more to a case of failing to "keep our heads" in the game and losing shape.

"We got a little bit distracted with how they press and what they do instead of simply playing our game and to our strengths - that is, speed and counterattacks."

The Black Sticks were often fragmented, lacking urgency in taking quick flicks from their base line and not finding enough cohesiveness in the hunting-and-gathering zones to find that sweet thudding sound on the backboard of the net.

"I don't think anyone had a very good game today," said the 26-year-old from Capital, adding the New Zealanders would go back to the drawing board on the tournament rest day today to tinker with facets of their game.

China captain Cui Qiuxia, talking through her English-speaking team manager, Wang Tong, said they took to the turf confident of causing an upset against the world No 5 Kiwis.

"Our advantage was our defence," Cui explained, adding they went a goal down early in the second half but continued to focus on putting up the shutters every time the New Zealand cavalry arrived with sticks blazing.

"We worked really hard at that."

The lightning pace and the ability to thread passes down the flanks were China's forte.

Assuming the mantle of dark horses sits comfortably with China who have an eye on Argentina.

However, Cui hastened to add they had to face Australia first tomorrow at 5pm before contemplating strategies against the South Americans at 3pm on Thursday.

"The atmosphere here is brilliant and the spectators are great. They were cheering for New Zealand but also cheering for us," she said.

On Saturday, China beat Japan 2-0 and Argentina outplayed Australia 3-0.

Yesterday, Argentina crushed Korea 5-1 and Australia pipped Japan 1-0.

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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