Olympics: Black Sticks make history

By Dylan Cleaver

The Black Sticks celebrate qualifying for the semifinals of the women's Olympic hockey tournament. Source / Brett Phibbs NZ Herald
The Black Sticks celebrate qualifying for the semifinals of the women's Olympic hockey tournament. Source / Brett Phibbs NZ Herald

It was bit of a mean trick, but it worked - New Zealand coach Mark Hager decided to let his team think they needed to win to advance to advance to Thursday's semifinal, most likely against the Netherlands, thinking an attacking approach was most likely to upset Germany.

When, late in the match, he decided it was time to let his captain Kayla Sharland know a draw was okay, she nearly didn't believe him.

"That was why I was trying to run off and score a goal at the end," she said.

Hager didn't like the idea that his players might get comfortable in the knowledge that one point, not three, would get them through.

"We felt that if we told them too much we might go into our shells and defend the whole game - which we bloody did anyway in the second half, so we knew we had to go out for a win.

"At the end I was trying to get a message to Kayla that it [a win] didn't matter.

You don't have to score. She looked at me a bit strange when we got the corner and told her to get back to halfway. She looked at me and said, 'Don't we have to win,' and I was like, 'No, leave it, leave it'."

With the 0-0 draw, this is the first time a New Zealand's women's team has made it out of pool play in six Olympic tournaments. At the previous Games in Beijing they lost every game and by the end, looked a broken team.

Sharland was part of that side, as was Krystal Forgesson, Emily Naylor and Gemma Flynn.

"It's huge for [those] players - though Gemma was only a baby at the last Olympics so probably didn't really take it in. The other three have been to two or three Olympics each and it's the opportunity for them to play for a medal."

The Black Sticks are one of the underdog stories of the tournament. They were expected to be a pesky opponent, but nobody outside of New Zealand seriously contemplated they would advance from a group including Argentina, Germany and Australia.

"The sport has built up over this past week and non-hockey people are watching it and it's great for the sport and great for New Zealand," Sharland said.

On balance, Germany were the better side in their 0-0 draw, but a huge helping of grit and a dash of good fortune kept New Zealand in it. Bianca Russell played her part too, making 11 saves, while her German counterpart Fanny Rinne was called upon to make just five.

"It is the best, touchwood, we have defended at a tournament," Hager said. "It would be more pleasing if we could put our chances away up the other end and take a bit of pressure off our defence, but at this stage our defence is doing well."

The match started at 8.30am local time. Hager said he planned to let the girls "stay on a high" for the rest of the day before he brought them back down to earth to start preparing for either the Netherlands or Great Britain on Thursday (NZT).

- NZ Herald

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