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Hockey: The last line of defence

When it comes to real estate, Kyle Pontifex owns a 7.83m2 imaginary plot of air, or at least he intends to, presuming he is selected on Tuesday to represent the New Zealand men's hockey team at his third Olympic Games.

The measurement comes from the 2.14m high by 3.66m wide, gaping, netted hole which the Black Sticks goalkeeper protects each time he steps on to a pitch.

Judging by recent performances, Pontifex is excelling as custodian. At the Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia, he was the player of the final when New Zealand beat Argentina 1-0, not to mention the goalkeeper of the tournament.

At December's Champions Trophy at home, he was also the goalkeeper of the tournament and in October's Oceania Cup, his saves helped New Zealand beat world No 1 Australia for the first time in 12 years.

Pontifex has exercised patience. The 32-year-old Wellingtonian was understudy to 133-cap veteran Paul Woolford at Athens and Beijing, where he clocked up just three appearances.

When Woolford retired in 2008, Pontifex made the spot his own. He now has 147 caps after debuting in 2001 but, to put his perseverance in context, captain Dean Couzins debuted in the same match and has clocked up 251 caps.

Former Black Stick Darren Smith is now the Black Sticks assistant coach. Part of his role is monitoring the goalkeepers. He says Pontifex's concession of eight goals in seven matches at the Azlan Shah Cup was a tribute to his eye for detail.

"In the last year, Kyle has gone from being a good keeper to another level. He's a strong leader in the group, well respected, an excellent trainer and has a knack for saving penalty corners.

His agility with all that gear on is excellent, especially [when the ball's] within a few metres of the goal.

"Australia have brought an aggressive high tempo game of late. There's an emphasis on pace and power, with a lot of substitutions. London temperatures are not expected to be anywhere near as high as places like Malaysia, so it means players can work harder. Kyle has to be prepared for an onslaught.

"You can leave Kyle to his own devices with training. He puts together a programme and coaches himself to some degree, with a big emphasis on video analysis. If there is anything for him to work on, it is probably facing power shots from the top of the circle and at acute angles because the likes of Australia, Germany and the Netherlands [ranked
No 1, 2 and 3 in the world] were not in Malaysia."

New Zealand is ranked seventh in the world. In Malaysia, they were the third-ranked side behind Britain and South Korea but also faced potential Olympic opponents India, Pakistan and Argentina.

Regardles off the training and conditioning, a core part of Pontifex's job is intangible.

Courage is hard to measure. Like in cricket or baseball, it defies human nature to get in the way of a spherical object sometimes travelling in excess of 120km/h. Pontifex is paid to put his body on the line, albeit in modern Michelin Man padding.

"I was always taught that a ball hurts just as much whether your eyes are open or closed, so youmayas well keep them open," Pontifex chuckles.

"For instance, when it comes to a drag flick, I was always told to apply the phrase 'dare to wait'. It is easy to pre-empt what a ball might do but you have to be confident enough to
watch it and then react."

One 2011 change which could affect Pontifex is the move towards an ice hockey-style penalty shootout rather than football-style stationary penalty strokes to decide medals.

Pontifex's skills earned New Zealand bronze at the Delhi Commonwealth Games using the stroke system but he welcomes the innovation. Penalty takers in the shootout start on the 25- yard line and have eight seconds to get the ball into the goal.

"Penalty strokes were stacked in favour of the attacker," Pontifex says.

"The shootout still favours the attacker but the goalkeeper has a better chance."

Goalkeepers a fraternal lot. Pontifex intends to catch up with Trevor Manning, New Zealand's most legendary custodian, for a quiet beer before he heads off to the Games to glean as much knowledge as possible.

Manning's extraordinary pain threshold enabled him to stay on the field with a smashed kneecap for the final 10 minutes as New Zealand edged towards gold against Australia in 1976 at the Montreal Games.

The achievement ranks high in the country's sporting injury folklore. It nestles somewhere near All Black Buck Shelford returning to the field with a torn scrotum in the 1986 Battle of Nantes, Russell Coutts winning Olympic gold in the 1984 Finn class with boils on his buttocks from walking in salty sailing gear and Bert Sutcliffe, head swathed in bandages, making 80 not out at Ellis Park on Boxing Day 1953.

"Back then, you couldn't replace the goalkeeper," Manning says. "I let [team-mate] Selwyn Maister know I'd be propped against the goalpost hoping any shot would miss. I tried to let Australia know nothing was wrong. I certainly needed a hand getting on the dais."

Now 66, Manning suffers from arthritis in both knees but his gold medal hangs on the wall behind a favourite armchair at his Johnsonville home. He credits himself with an athletic goalkeeping style that has similarities to modern day goalkeeping techniques.

"I liked to stretch out a bit and use diving tackles, whereas others preferred to hunch up and block. However, hockey was a different game back then.

"We played on mainly grass fields [the Montreal final was an early example of astroturf], had cane crickettype pads, thin gloves and there was no such thing as a drag flick [they started in the Dutch league in the early 1990s]. Players these days tend to be more powerful through the shoulders as a result. We used to practise with tennis balls, otherwise you hurt your hand. The gloves also weren't as big, wide and padded as they are today."

Yet some things haven't changed and that probably formsthe bond between the two north Wellingtonians.

"I always found it took courage to stand or lie there, holding your ground or cutting down the shot angle by reading the play," Manning says. "It can be a bit of a lonely spot. Even in Montreal, I didn't touch the ball in the first half."

Still, buyer beware. That's what comes fromowning a 7.83m2 patch of air, occasionally subject to high pressure.

- Herald on Sunday

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