Hockey: Black Sticks learning how to win the big one

By David Leggat

Defender Brooke Neal impressed in the Black Sticks' win over Australia. Photo / Getty
Defender Brooke Neal impressed in the Black Sticks' win over Australia. Photo / Getty

At just the right time, with the Rio Olympics looming, the women's Black Sticks are learning how to win the big games.

Having won the Hawkes Bay Cup final in April against the industrious world No 10 Japan, the fourth-ranked Black Sticks beat Australia 2-0 in Darwin to clinch the Four Nations cup, further evidence that the gulf between the transtasman rivals has disappeared.

Australia, world No 3, won the round robin game 2-1, when New Zealand were left kicking themselves after a game they should have won. In the final, after also having beaten India 4-1 and Japan 2-1, they made no mistake, courtesy of goals from Kelsey Smith and Olivia Merry.

''It's a real stepping stone for us," impressive defender Brooke Neal said today.

''We've always talked about winning the big games against quality teams like Australia.

We're really happy with our performance, the way we stuck it out. It wasn't pretty hockey all the time, but we did the job in the end."

Neal is a part of a highly impressive defensive operation. On the basis of the old line about defences winning matches, the Black Sticks are in good shape.

Neal, veteran Emily Gaddum, Liz Thompson, Rose Keddell, Julia King and Ella Gunson, along with both goalkeepers Amelia Gibson and Georgia Barnett, had strong tournaments at the defensive end of the field.

''It's been awesome to have Emily back in the team," Neal said of New Zealand's most capped international Gaddum, who had taken time out after the Commonwealth Games two years ago.

''We've been training for a big six-week block and it's showing in the way we're working together. We understand each other's roles better and we can sort out our defence a lot more efficiently than we have in the past."

The squad to travel to the Champions Trophy in London will be named on Tuesday.

That's the final event before the chosen 16 head to Rio. The Darwin tournament showed coach Mark Hager and his selectors have some difficult decisions ahead.

Senior pair Kayla Whitelock and Gemma Flynn, who add punch and organisation to the attacking operation, are sure to come back in after missing Darwin. First choice goalkeeper Sally Rutherford also sat out Darwin.

Assuming all return for London they'll come back into a team bolstered by a strong streak of self belief.

''It's testament to the girls putting in a lot of hard yards and showing dedication to the programme and trusting our coaches and structures and the efficiency of game plans," Neal said.

- NZ Herald

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