The first of the men's three Olympic Qualifier's starts in Auckland, New Zealand, tomorrow, with six teams battling for one place in this year's Olympic tournament. While hosts New Zealand and Argentina are widely believed to be the teams to meet in the all important final, Ireland have lately had some good results and proven to be able to upset big teams on a good day. France have also shown on many occasions that they can tease the traditional hockey powerhouses, while Trinidad&Tobago and the USA, who entered the competition as first reserve nation after Cuba's withdrawal, may find it a challenge to keep up with the experienced Black Sticks and Argentines.
Even apart from the home advantage, the hosts have a lot going for them: they are easily the most experienced side with almost a hundred caps per head on average, and have had very good results in their recent preparation series with Chile and Japan, defeating Chile 3 times in a four game series and dispatching Japan with 5 wins in as many matches.
Behind the Black Sticks' impressive 96,6 average caps, Argentina and Ireland follow, with France and and Trinidad&Tobago already trailing behind considerably. By far the most unexperienced side are the USA men however, who sport only 32 caps per person on average, and are thus only 'one third as experienced' as the Black Sticks. New Zealand are also the oldest team with an average age of over 26, while Argentina, France, Ireland and the USA follow with average ages around 25 years. Trinidad&Tobago are far behind with a mere 22,2 years average age, which comes as no surprise given that the Carribean nation puts forward 7 of the 12 youngest players of the tournament, including Aidan de Gannes, second youngest player of the event at 16 years, 6 months, and the event's youngest participant, Evan Piers Farrell, 16 years, 2 months and 30 days of age at the start of the competition.
Apart from their young age and relative lack of experience, Trinidad&Tobago also battle with losing their coaches on short notice: Dutchmen Eric Verboom and Rob Haantjes quit their positions with the team less than two weeks before the start of the qualifying tournament, explaining that they had been disappointed by the federation too many times, and that the lack of organisation and the failure to organise the team's preparations in a timely manner made it impossible to properly prepare the squad for the competition.
Their fellow Panamericans, the US men, have a better position in that regard, having been led by Englishman Nick Conway since August 2005, and made good progress during that time. The US men are however the weakest team in the competition, having entered the competition as a replacement for Cuba and face a steep uphill battle. Both American teams may also struggle to adjust to the laws and peculiarities of top-level international hockey, with the USA last having participated in an official intercontinental outdoor tournament in the 2001 Qorld Cup Qualifier, while the Trinidad men have never participated in a World Cup, Olympic Games, World Cup or Olympic qualifying tournament, or Champions Trophy or Champions Challenge.
As usual, Trinidad rely on their superstar player Kwan Browne to lead them, but the task of taking a team as young and inexperienced as his to the next level may well weigh too heavily on Browne's lone shoulders in the face of more compact teams such as Ireland, New Zealand, and Argentina. The USA face a similar challenge, relying heavily on their standout player Pat Harris, while the French also usually depend much on their leading man Frederic Soyez.
Like Ireland, the French have prepared extensively for this event, having spent more than two weeks in Australia and New Zealand to get properly acclimatized, focus on practice and play a number of warm-up games. While having the opportunity to prepare like this certainly is considered a bliss by some other Olympic Qualifier participants, it is turning out to provoke early bouts of cabin fever and has left the players a little tired from the strain of numerous rigorous practice sessions. The two European teams in this qualifier meet in their very first encounter of the tournament, and a fiercely disputed match is to be expected between these two teams who know each other extremely well and will both be seeking to establish a good base for the remainder of the competition - especially given that Ireland be keen to settle old scores and make up for the 0-1 defeat that they suffered at the hands of France in the European Nations Championship last August and that eventually spelt relegation for them.
New Zealand start their campaign against the Trinidad&Tobago team and are expected to get off to a good start. Against the home team, who dispose of a solid and experienced defense around Blair Hopping, Dean Couzins and penalty corner ace Hayden Shaw, combined with highly skilled midfielder Ryan Archibald and top class forwards such as hotshot youngster Simon Child, veteran Bevan Hari, and crafty Phil Burrows, it will be a leap into the deep end for the team from the Carribean. Mid-week, the Black Sticks will then meet Argentina in their fourth match, putting forward what is likely to be a rehearsal of the tournament final.
But Argentina have also set their sights firmly on the trophy and the elusive ticket to Beijing. Having narrowly missed out on Panamerica's direct qualification place by losing to Canada in the Panamerican Games' final last August - by penalty strokes - Sergio Vigil's boys are determined to rectify their slip-up. With half the team now consisting of 2005 Junior World Champions, led by flamboyant captain Mario Almada, much will depend on how the team copes with doing without veteran penalty corner specialist Jorge Lombi who has been dropped from the squad. Meeting fellow Americans USA in their opener, Argentina are also anticipated to make a good first impression and lay down the first stepping stones on their path to the clash of the titans in the crucial tournament final.
World Ranking: 7
Average age: 24,6 years
Average caps: 80,2
Players to watch: Mario Almada, Lucas Vila
Recent Record Major Tournaments: 2007 Continental Cup (Panamerican Games) 2nd; 2007 Champions Challenge 1st; 2006 World Cup 10th; 2006 Champions Trophy 6th; 2005 Champions Challenge 1st; 2004 Olympic Games 11th
World Ranking: 16
Average age: 25,2 years
Average caps: 48,0
Players to watch: Frederic Soyez, Matthieu Durchon
Recent Record Major Tournaments: 2007 Continental Cup (European Cup) 6th; 2006 World Cup Qualifier 6th
World Ranking: 19
Average age: 25,2 years
Average caps: 73,8
Players to watch: John Jermyn, Stephen Butler
Recent Record Major Tournaments: 2007 Continental Cup (European Cup) 7th; 2006 World Cup Qualifier 8th
World Ranking: 10
Average age: 26,4 years
Average caps: 96,6
Players to watch: Ryan Archibald, Simon Child
Recent Record Major Tournaments: 2007 Continental Cup (Oceania Cup) 2nd; 2007 Champions Challenge 2nd; 2006 World Cup 8th; 2004 Olympic Games 6th
World Ranking: 24
Average age: 22,2 years
Average caps: 46,7
Players to watch: Kwandwane Browne, Matthew Tang Nian
Recent Record Major Tournaments: 2007 Continental Cup (Panamerican Games) 4th
World Ranking: 27
Average age: 25,1 years
Average caps: 32,4
Players to watch: Pat Harris, Sean Nakamura
Recent Record Major Tournaments: 2007 Continental Cup (Panamerican Games) 6th
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