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Rio Olympics 2016: Black Sticks on cusp of first ever medal

The Black Sticks' 4-2 win over Australia in their women's hockey quarter-final places them on the cusp of history in Rio.

New Zealand, the world No.4, have promised much before, but never secured a medal.

Think of the 7-1 pool loss to Argentina at Sydney in 2000 as a medal play-off loomed on the back of winning their pool; or cast your mind back to London when they drew with eventual gold medallists the Netherlands at fulltime before losing the penalty shoot out 3-1. They lost the bronze medal match 3-1 to Britain.

However, the experience and belief of the incumbents, combined with current circumstances, suggests they are line for the country's second hockey medal after the men's gold of 1976.

Only four of the 18-woman squad began this tournament with less than 100 caps. Five - Kayla Whitelock, Anita McLaren, Gemma Flynn, Charlotte Harrison and Stacey Michelsen - each had more than 200.

The team has excelled of late, finishing as beaten finalists to world No.2 Argentina in December's World League final. They drew with world No.3 Australia in October's Oceania Cup pool play before losing 2-1 on penalties after a drawn final.

The New Zealanders should also benefit from the fact that one of the world's top two ranked sides - and London finalists - the Netherlands and Argentina will be eliminated in their quarter-final this morning.

Great Britain (England are ranked seventh in the world) and Spain (ranked 14th) will be New Zealand's semi-final opponent on Thursday morning (NZ time).

If the Black Sticks were to win in Rio it would be the country's first gold in a teams event involving three or more people for 32 years.

The hiatus extends to Los Angeles in 1984 when Keith Trask, Conrad Robertson, Shane O'Brien and Les O'Connell won rowing's coxless four and Alan Thompson, Ian Ferguson, Paul MacDonald and Grant Bramwell repeated the dose in canoeing's K4 1000m.

The 1992 equestrian team came close, taking silver at Barcelona. They have been matched by the women's sevens side and men's team sprinters at Rio. The equestrian teams (1988, 1996 and 2012), team pursuit cyclists (2008, 2012) and rowing coxed four (1988) earned bronzes.

Memories of the loss to the Netherlands in London were still raw for Whitelock and Flynn when the team was named for this campaign.

"It was bitter disappointment," Flynn said. "It hurt for a while, and you'd wake up in the middle of night thinking 'if only'. I'm lucky to get the opportunity again because that memory is engrained. It could have been so different for us and our sport. The highlight and lowlight was playing the semifinal."

"To lose in a shootout was tough, especially the thought of having to back up in a bronze medal playoff," Whitelock added. "It was bittersweet because no one expected us to be in that top four, or drawing [at the end of regulation time] with Holland. People say it's one of the best games they've seen - and it's probably the best we've played - but it's good to know a number of us have been to that level."

Against Australia the Black Sticks led throughout with goals from McLaren, Kelsey Smith, Flynn and Olivia Merry.

"Australia put us under a lot of pressure early but the girls hung in and relaxed which gave us a lot of belief," coach Mark Hager said.

"We worked bloody hard throughout. If you're going to win medals you need everyone playing well and we certainly did that.

Defender Sam Charlton said the result was just the beginning for a side eyeing gold.

"I honestly think every one of our girls wanted it more than they did," she said.

New Zealand opened the scoring in the sixth minute when McLaren sent a penalty corner drag flick rocketing into the top of the net.

Midway through the second quarter another penalty corner was deflected in by Smith from a Whitelock strike.

Australia responded but New Zealand grabbed a 3-1 buffer in the 38th minute when Michelsen found Flynn in front of an open goal.

Merry delivered the final goal three minutes later after latching onto a Harrison deflection.
Australia scored a consolation goal just before the finish.

The victory is New Zealand's first major success over Australia at these Games.

Shooter Natalie Rooney and the women's sevens team were pipped for gold medals by Australian opponents, and the eventing team was beaten for bronze.

- NZ Herald

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