Michael Burgess is a sports writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Hockey: Tests last chance for Olympics

Mark Hager.
Photo / Natalie Slade
Mark Hager. Photo / Natalie Slade

When is a test match not a test match? When it is an audition.

Black Sticks coach Mark Hager says of the upcoming home hockey series against Argentina which begins tomorrow: "We want to win every game when we take the field but this series is also about assessing players and understanding what we want to have going forward. It is essentially an audition."

He means for the London Olympics. After a comparatively poor performance at the Champions Trophy in Argentina (won by the host's Las Leonas), Hager would likely have wanted to be closer to his confirmed London line-up.

But the setback at the Champions Trophy, and increasing depth in women's hockey, means there is time for another audition. This could be the last chance for some players, with Hager wanting to begin fine-tuning London preparations at a four nations tournament here in April, involving the United States, Australia, New Zealand and one more country (yet to be confirmed).

He has made seven changes to his extended squad, mainly in the defence.

"The group of players that come in will now get their chance to perform, to show what they can do," says Hager.

Hager estimates the team played at about 45-50 per cent of their potential in Argentina and hopes this series will see that rise to around 65-70 per cent.

The Blacks Sticks have prepared with a physical challenge, playing against various male teams including Westlake Boys High, the Auckland under-21 team and their North Harbour counterparts.

New Zealand fancy their chances against the powerhouse South Americans.

Argentina have been bolstered by the presence of Luciana Aymar, seven time FIH world hockey player of the year, though the Herald on Sunday understands she will miss the first test because of an Olympic committee commitment.

Las Leonas also received a major setback last week, when penalty corner drag flicking specialist Maria Barrionuevo injured a knee. She won't make the New Zealand tour and is in some doubt for the Olympics; Carla Rebecchi is a capable replacement but not in the same class as Barrionuevo.

The first test is tomorrow at 6.30pm at Lloyd Elsmore Hockey Stadium, with subsequent games on Wednesday (Albany), Friday (Lloyd Elsmore) and Saturday (Albany).

- Herald on Sunday

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