Chris Rattue

Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Olympics: Cooper happy to answer the call

Melody Cooper says she was stunned when Black Sticks coach Mark Hager phoned her.Picture / Natalie Slade.
Melody Cooper says she was stunned when Black Sticks coach Mark Hager phoned her.Picture / Natalie Slade.

Melody Cooper is the comeback queen of the New Zealand hockey side.

Eight years after missing the Athens Olympics then skipping off to live in Adelaide where she plays for the Southern Suns in the national league, Cooper received a dream-come-true New Year's phone call from Black Sticks coach Mark Hager. After a quick think, she took the plunge, including six months unpaid leave from her job as a sales manager for a radio network.

After making the 16-women squad named last month, Cooper even went a few catwalk steps further, modelling the New Zealand Olympic team uniform at the public unveiling. The 29-year-old talks with the Herald on the eve of the hockey team's Monday departure for warm-up games in Europe.

What a comeback ...

I first made myself available playing for Central in the national league last year but missed the initial New Zealand squad. I was shocked to get Mark's phone call. This has been a whirlwind. I have been very lucky though staying with the Muirs, a North Harbour hockey family.

They have treated me like a daughter which has been the best possible situation rather than flatting.

The squad is not overly experienced - how do you rate the medal chances ?

Quite good ... the top six teams are close. We must bat above our weight but we want to medal. We have done a lot of scouting.

What level of research is available ?

Pretty specific. The breakdown is fantastic, although watching a lot of video is draining sometimes. But it's all valuable. We know the starting lineup for most teams, their reserves, their strengths and weaknesses.

An example ?

As a defender I mark a lot of strikers ... one in particular is Pietie Coetzee from South Africa. We know she runs back to collect the ball and lays it off quickly to a midfielder and is off to connect again. We've zoned in on her a lot. She's the playmaker. We will have people reverse pressing, and someone on the other side of her.

Is there such a thing as too much information ?

Yeah ... I don't like to watch video or have team meetings too close to going to bed because I start dreaming about what I have to do or what I've done in a game and that disrupts my sleep.

What about the Olympic hockey venue ?

They are using a blue pitch because that looks snazzy on TV. At first the yellow ball on blue is glary after being used to a green pitch and white ball. We've been practising on the blue pitch at Westlake Girls since February so no excuses.

Is there one Olympic event you would most like to see, and will you be able to ?

Two actually. I'd love to see Val [Adams] do her shot put ... also the Australian women's basketball team. My husband [David Cooper] has played in the NBL for 10 years and we have good friends playing.

You are part of an old Manawatu connection in the Black Sticks ...

There was a strong cluster around my age group, including Kayla Sharland and Emily Naylor who are the Black Sticks co-captains. We all learned from one another and they have helped me out tremendously. They are really good friends.

The key to Olympic success ?

I can't pinpoint one thing but we have focused on unity. There have been hierarchies whereas this team doesn't have that. We resolve things together - not go off in little groups and snigger.

Things won't always be hunky-dory in a squad though ...

There was a big group of 24 and it was very competitive and stressful leading up to the team naming but everyone has changed to another gear since then.

Toughest individual opponent ?

[Argentinian] Luciana Aymar, the world player of the year many times. She is the hardest - athletic with amazing stick skills and deception.

The dirtiest team ?

Spain. During one match, our captain Suzie Muirhead was standing where we substitute and one of their girls grabbed her stick and ran straight through Suzie, dropped her to the ground, and ran off. I was only 17 and wondered what the heck was going on. That's common these days. The Aussies are quite physical.

Is there one thing you would change in hockey ?

Our sport has developed really well with changes such as no offsides. I like the referral system - the ball is hit so hard these days that it is difficult for the umpires.

Good luck for the Olympics. Are you superstitious ?

I had wedding earrings, small studs, which I wore every game even though you are not supposed to. I lost one of them in a Four Nations game.

I felt lost without them at first but it's probably a good thing to break the habit.

My workmates bought a silver fern for me which I put on a chain and I even sleep with it on. If they have to come off [in matches] I'll put them in my stick bag.

- NZ Herald

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