Hockey: Sticks face uphill battle to guarantee World Cup spot

By David Leggat

Dean Couzins has his eye on World Cup qualification. Photo / NZPA
Dean Couzins has his eye on World Cup qualification. Photo / NZPA

Motivation will be the least of New Zealand's concerns for their third-fourth play-off match against hosts the Netherlands at the World League in Rotterdam tonight (NZT).

But what captain Dean Couzins hopes to see is a return of the necessary energy and aggression which, for the first time at the tournament, was lacking in their semifinal against world No9 Belgium yesterday.

It was a bad time to go missing. The Black Sticks lost 3-2, and must beat the Dutch to be guaranteed a place in next June's World Cup in The Hague. If they don't, route B is winning the Oceania qualifier against Australia at Stratford in October. That would be a tall order, given the world No2 Aussies, who beat the Netherlands 4-3 in the other semifinal, will be strongly favoured to win the decider against the Belgians later tonight.

The Netherlands are ranked third, three spots higher than New Zealand. Beating the Belgians was the distinctly easier route to The Hague. That knowledge probably added to the frustration seasoned Auckland defender Couzins felt.

"For the first time in the tournament it took the scoreline to get us going," he said yesterday of the Belgian loss. "It wasn't until that meant there was only one way to go that we really got stuck in. We weren't far off, but we didn't quite have the same energy, aggression and pressure on the ball. We were probably 35 minutes too late."

New Zealand conceded an early goal and were 3-1 down early in the second half in a game where the key statistics were reasonably even. Goals by Blair Hilton, with a deft deflection from a long-range drive into the circle by Alex Shaw, and a sharp penalty corner strike from Andy Hayward, had New Zealand in the frame until the end.

Two goals by Tom Boon and one by Thomas Briel did the business for the Belgians, coached by New Zealand mentor Colin Batch until last year's Olympics.

New Zealand's second goalkeeper, Hamish McGregor, is likely to be fit for selection after a bad bout of sickness. The Dutch, beaten finalists at the London Olympics, will be firm favourites.

"They have a good counter-attack, have a couple of guys who are very quick at carrying the ball. They also move it particularly well in their build-up, so when we are pressing we need to be careful in how we go about it," Couzins said.

Be too aggressive and they run the risk of being cut apart by the technically skilled Dutch, whom they last beat three years ago, having lost the last three clashes.

The women's Black Sticks played Korea for third, with the same World Cup scenario applying, early today.

- Herald on Sunday

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