Mark Hager reckons his proudest achievement with the women's Black Sticks has been the level of consistency over his time in charge.

After all, since taking charge in July 2009, he has kept New Zealand inside the top four nations in the sport in the course of 343 games as coach. That's not to be sneezed at, although the last couple of months might have tested that belief.

Consider that in April, New Zealand won the Commonwealth Games gold medal on the Gold Coast, belting Australia 4-1 in the final, one of their best performances in years.

Shortly after, they conceded 11 goals while scoring two in the course of losing three matches at a tri-series in Cromwell; then in the last few days, after getting their World Cup campaign off to a decent start with a 4-2 win over Belgium, they were beaten, and deservedly, 2-1 by 12th-ranked Japan in London.


Early tomorrow New Zealand play world No5 Australia in what's shaping as a crucial game. Win it, and New Zealand almost certainly are straight into the quarter-finals; lose or draw and most likely they'll have to play a crossover game to guarantee a last-eight place. That wasn't part of the plan.

Still, former Australian star striker Hager has plenty to be proud of.

He arrived in the country as one of the games' outstanding strikers, and only the prolific Jamie Dwyer's 243 goals can top Hager's 179 for Australia which put him in the sport's Australian Hall of Fame. Hager never imagined he would still be in charge nine years later. His first match as coach, a 7-4 beating by Argentina in Whangarei in July 2009, might have had him scratching his head.

Still, Hager, a straight-shooting Queenslander whose family have long settled in this country, has overseen notable highs mixed with some lows. He has helped shape some of the country's best players, like the retired Kayla Whitelock, Gemma McCaw and Emily Naylor, and now Stacey Michelsen, a fixture in any world player of the year conversations.

The 54-year-old is an emotional sideline watcher. The heart tends to be close to his sleeve.

He was distraught after the Olympic semifinal loss on a penalty shootout to the Netherlands in London in 2012; then angry that his players produced a listless performance in the bronze medal match against Britain a few days later.

The Black Sticks endured the same fate in Rio; this time, though, he had no issues with the bronze defeat to Germany. The effort had been there and the players could not be faulted.

The pride shone through, however, after the Gold Coast when he talked about his players. That result, however, has raised the bar for his players.


"This team talks a lot about achieving firsts," he said. "With the Commonwealth Games, we'd won bronze and silver but never a gold, so we wanted that gold. With the World Cup we want to be the first New Zealand team to win a medal.

"But we're not getting ahead of ourselves; you've still got to win game by game."

He listens admiringly to senior players like captain Stacey Michelsen and Sam Charlton when they talk to the younger players.

"They've learnt a lot, been through bad times. They say to the players 'Don't fear it, this is what we've got to do'. The Commonwealth Games is not a World Cup but the pleasing thing is when it counted we played well."

Hager remembered that first international with a rueful grin.

"I thought when I got here if I got four years that would be fantastic.

"To still be here ... I can't thank Hockey NZ enough for having faith and trust in me. Having come close twice [at the Olympics] they could have said, 'No, it's time for a new coach'."

Part of the thinking may be that when it's considered Hager has had a turnover of about 10 players at the end of each Olympic cycle, to remain relevant and high achieving is no mean feat. That said, he knows time is coming to move on.

"After Tokyo [the 2020 Olympics] they'll need a new voice and I probably need to step away."