Hockey: Archibald back to help Black Sticks

Ryan Archibald. Photo / Getty Images
Ryan Archibald. Photo / Getty Images

There are few players in the world who can tease a hockey ball in the way Ryan Archibald does.

Watching him dribble can sometimes be mesmerising - he combines blinding stick speed and control - and he's used it to good effect against many of the world's best defenders.

He's not going to be doing it for much longer, certainly not at the top level, and has long planned his international retirement to coincide with the London Olympics.

Crucially for New Zealand, however, he is still playing. He hasn't appeared for the Black Sticks since the Champions Trophy in July 2010, preferring to concentrate on individual and career aspirations, but always planned for one last Olympic campaign.

He returns to the side for the Champions Trophy at North Harbour starting next weekend and will add considerable class to an improving side and his presence will help the Black Sticks in their stated ambition of claiming a medal at next year's Olympics.

A lot of top sportsmen try to hang on as long as they can. Not Archibald. He's still only 31 but debuted for the Black Sticks in 1997 and played professionally in the Netherlands, the world's top domestic league, for five years.

He's now amassed 251 international caps and is second only to teammate Phil Burrows (262) in total caps - he would hold the all-time record if he had played for New Zealand over the past 15 months.

In 2008 he was selected for the World All Stars and in the same year was a finalist for the prestigious Euro Hockey League MVP award. Short of winning an Olympic medal like his father Jeff, who was part of the Olympic gold-medal winning side of 1976, there's not much more to prove.

"At this stage I am really comfortable [about retiring after the Olympics]," the 31-year-old says. "I have been doing it for a long time now. There are other goals and focuses in life that are starting to become more important, particularly around career.

"I took a break after the 2010 Champions Trophy. I felt like I needed a refresher and to focus on a few other things and I wanted to start transitioning into a work career knowing I was coming back to live in New Zealand. I also needed a break from international hockey. These days it's pretty full-on. You play 25-30 tests a year and I have been doing that since 1997. But I always knew I wanted to go to London."

New Zealand coach Shane McLeod is glad he does. The Black Sticks were starting to learn to live without Archibald, and recently beat world No 1 Australia for the first time since 1999, but the midfielder exudes class.

"He's one of the best players this country has produced," McLeod says. "He is a strong part of what we are doing. We have been without him for close to 18 months and were starting to adapt to life without him but any time we have with him now is a bonus.

"I think the side is good enough without him but to have one of the best players in the world in your side adds another dimension to your game."

New Zealand are pushing for a top-four finish at the upcoming Champions Trophy for the world's top eight sides and will need to finish in the top two in their pool. Presently ranked seventh, they will need to beat Korea (sixth) and pick up a result against either Germany (second) or the Netherlands (third) to progress.

But their recent performances against Australia were encouraging and Archibald doesn't think a medal in London is out of the question.

"If the Olympics were tomorrow, I would say, 'no, it's not realistic'," he says. "But the team has been on a good path of improvement. If they can keep doing that, and they need to improve a lot in a short space of time, then it's realistic.

"I would like us to push for top four at the Champions Trophy. We're at home and other teams are probably experimenting a little bit in preparation for the Olympics. The likes of Pakistan, England and Spain, we should start to bet them regularly. It's just Holland, Germany and Australia which we tend to come second best to on most occasions."

The main reason for this is the fact the gap between New Zealand's top players and some squad players has been vast. That gap is closing and Archibald's impending retirement will help reduce it further - but in the wrong way. And that will be a loss to New Zealand hockey.

- APNZ

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