Hockey: Black Sticks relish the prospect of facing Aussies first up in Rio

By David Leggat

New Zealand hockey Black Sticks men's coach Colin Batch. Photo / Brett Phibbs
New Zealand hockey Black Sticks men's coach Colin Batch. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Facing world No 1 Australia first up in the Rio Olympics suits men's hockey coach Colin Batch just fine.

Indeed Batch quipped that the idea of facing them first and last - that is in the Olympic final - has a nice symmetry to it.

While the old line that you have to face all opponents at some point holds true, getting the formidable Australians at the start of the campaign for a gold medal is a good outcome. No team is immune to those early wrinkles and New Zealand, ranked eighth, will fancy being able to capitalise on any.

"I'm pleased about that," Batch said of the eye-catching opener on August 7 (NZT).

"They're always a difficult team to beat, they'll be highly motivated, as will our group. I think it's a good draw."

However the men's Black Sticks have some form for starting tournaments in second gear.

They drew their first two games in their defence of the Azlan Shah title in Malaysia this month and although beaten only once, finished third.

"We've been slow starters at some tournaments so we want to learn from those situations and make sure we start at a good level, and not playing catch up in the tournament," Batch said.

The format for the Olympic hockey programme has been rejigged.

In past Games the men's and women's competitions would be played on alternate days. In Rio teams are expected to play five pool games in seven days.

"From a physical point, it will make it more demanding, but you do get an extra rest day leading into the quarter-finals," Batch said.

The men's squad for Rio will be named on May 25. Batch expects a full hand of players to choose from, because Blair Tarrant (hamstring) and Shea McAleese (broken finger and rib) are well over injuries picked up in Malaysia.

He likes what he's seeing from his players. Their 1-0 loss to Australia in Malaysia was an example where the Black Sticks scrapped hard and stayed in the fight to the end.

"There was a time when the players were pretty comfortable with their selection and didn't necessarily continue with their development," Batch said.

"Now I see players who know they have to keep improving to stake their claim for selection. That's the biggest part of our development."

New Zealand head for Europe in June for a series of internationals. They have three matches against world No 2 the Netherlands on June 23, 21 and 24, then a six-nation tournament from June 27 in Spain, where their opponents will be the Spanish, Germany India, Ireland and Argentina.

After that it's home for a short period before they go to Rio, where preparations include practice games against Ireland, Germany and India.

In contrast with the men, the fourth-ranked women's Black Sticks face world No 1 the Netherlands and No 5 China their final two matches, the toughest games of their pool.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 28 Sep 2016 22:47:14 Processing Time: 597ms