Getting away from the bright lights and buzz of the metropolitan cities is something the New Zealand Under-21 and their Australian counterparts will relish in Napier this week.

"I think it's really cool to come down to a small region, from where I am in Auckland, to play hockey," says Kiwi skipper Ella Hyatt-Brown before she and Aussie counterpart Michaela Spano lead their respective sides out at 4pm for the first of the inaugural three-test series between the countries at the hockey stadium in Park Island today.

"Hawke's Bay is a well-known hockey centre now after hosting a few events," says Hyatt-Brown of the David Nancarrow-managed side who will play a further two matches on Saturday and Sunday from 2pm.

She says it's exciting because they have crossed sticks with the Aussies as under-18s a couple of years ago so the continuity is good for their constitution in the bid to progress to the higher echelons with the Black Sticks Women and the Hockeyroos.


"It's pretty be cool to be up against one of the top countries in the world at a relatively young age," said the 21-year-old from North Harbour, who also is at the helm for the first time at the age-group level for New Zealand.

Spano, who shares the mantle of captaincy with Morgan Gallagher and Abby Wilson, also is calling the shots on debut after representing the side since she was 17.

"To come to another country, which is such a beautiful country, we're very privileged to come across to play in such a great environment, I guess," says the South Australian player, juxtaposing here with the recent stint in China.

With several players progressing to the Hockeyroos from the U18 year, Hyatt-Brown says the Aussies today are mainly unknown quantities.

While the fast and furious brand of hockey the tourists traditionally bring is similar to what the Kiwis employ, she reckons it's an opportune time to gauge their worth against some innovative "structural" play.

"I think we're quite similar in the way we play an aggressive and fast game but it'll be interesting to find out the difference in the three games," says Hyatt-Brown of the Greg Nicol-coached New Zealand side that includes striker Kaitlin Cotter and midfielder/defender Arabella Sheild.

The midfielder/defender says the players have enjoyed the tutelage of Napier's Nicol - a former Black Sticks men's assistant coach - since July, and they've developed a healthy rapport in trying to hone their skills.

Hyatt-Brown is looking forward to the Bay fans turning out in droves to support them in the three tests.


Nicol echoes Nancarrow's sentiments of turning the series into an annual event and, preferably, keeping it in the Bay.

"It's a great opportunity to play the best and it's good for the coaches as well because they're obviously a great sporting nation," he says.

New Zealand Under-21 hockey skipper Ella Hyatt-Brown (centre left) with Australian co-captains Michaela Spano, Morgan Gallagher and Abby Wilson. Photo/Paul Taylor
New Zealand Under-21 hockey skipper Ella Hyatt-Brown (centre left) with Australian co-captains Michaela Spano, Morgan Gallagher and Abby Wilson. Photo/Paul Taylor

Nicol says a couple of training camps led to a selection in Napier six weeks ago but the onus is now on the players to convert the collective nous into something productive on an international platform.

"You don't know what each player will bring, how the players adapt and how much purpose we've gathered," he says, delighted to bring international competition to the Bay and relishing the under-21 environment.

He considers it to be an ideal age to nurture and mould prospective talent.

"I'm really enjoying coaching them and the series will be a nice challenge as well," says the former age-group South African-born player. He also fulfils a high-performance manager role with Hockey New Zealand, based here but engaging in identifying talent around the country.

Striker Spano, 21, who's from South Australia, says it's a great national experience for the younger Aussies.

"Obviously the Kiwis are a very good side and they are very tough to play against so I'm sure our younger ones will also get a good run for our money," she says.

The 2016 Junior World Cup representative, who returned with a bronze from Chile, says the series is a good time for Aussie players to find cohesiveness with each other because they hail from different states in the continent.

The Adelaide University student, who is living the sporting dream while juggling a human resources/management degree as a part timer in her first year, reckons it's an ideal time for Australia to develop a junior footprint to ease into the senior ranks via a well-trodden pathway.

"It's just good for your personal and team development in a different environment as well," says Spano.

Aussie coach Triny Powell, of Sydney, who holds the highest goal scorer record as a former Hockeyroos striker, fosters a foraging-type of game.

"We play a very aggressive style and put a lot of pressure on the defenders," she says, mindful their Kiwi counterparts aren't shy in raising the physicality stakes.

"[The Kiwis] are a very hard-working team and they play very similar structures to us so there are many similarities as opposed to China," she says, revealing the Chinese sit back deeper and then mount wave of counterattacks amid individual prowess.

The Aussies and Kiwis tend to adopt a more free-flowing brand with less emphasis on structures, she says.

However, Spano is mindful to expect the unexpected in the next three matches.

Adept at finding the back board with a thud, she doesn't hide the collective desire to play for her nation's top women's side but is happy to play the card of patience.

The ability to trap a ball, says Spano, enables a striker to play it with some conviction so all the other variables, such as speed and flair, complement that.