New Zealand celebrates its best-ever performance at the Champions Trophy, a bronze in 2011.
New Zealand celebrates its best-ever performance at the Champions Trophy, a bronze in 2011.
(Photo: FIH / Grant Treeby)
In the Spotlight is a series that will profile each of the 24 participating teams at the London Olympic Games. It will provide a glimpse of what to expect as each squad begins its London quest. Between now and the Olympic opening ceremony a new team will be featured every 2-3 days. Today we feature the women's national team of New Zealand.

The Basics:

The New Zealand’s women’s national team is currently ranked sixth in the world with 1615 points. They have never claimed an Olympic medal. However, the programis on an upswing, as evidenced by their biggest success at an FIH tournament, a Bronze medal won at the 2011 Champions Trophy in Amsterdam. That feat was followed up by a sturdy sixth-place finish at the 2012 edition of the Champions Trophy in Argentina.


The Road to London:

The Black Sticks women qualified for the London Olympics as Oceania Cup champions at the Oceania Olympic Qualifier held in Hobart in October 2011. It was the first time in history that New Zealand won a three match series against Australia. New Zealand lost the first match by 2-1, drew the second by 3-3 but a 4-2 victory in the third match saw them ultimately clinch the trophy. Both Australia and New Zealand ultimately punched their ticket to London through the event, but the historic win over Australia was a major boost for the eternal bridemaids of the Oceania Continent.


Players to Watch:
The team includes two three-time Olympians, captain Kayla Sharland and Emily Naylor, and two others, Krystal Forgesson and Gemma Flynn, who will make their second appearance. New Zealand additionally have the FIH Young Player of the Year 2011, Stacey Michelsen, in their squad. Michelsen is the first New Zealander to receive this award. Other young ambitious players like the Harrison sisters or Sam Charlton are also worth watching. 34-year-old goalkeeper Bianca Russell is the oldest in the team, 24-year-old Anita Punt is the fastest with her times over 10 metres rating in the top eight of the men’s squad. 

Coach:
Mark Hager is a former Australian international with 230 caps and 179 goals. The 48-year-old has been coaching the Black Sticks since 2009. He guided the team to victory at the 2009 Champions Challenge, Silver at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and Bronze at the 2011 Champions Trophy. Inducted to the Hockey Australia Hall of Fame in 2008, Hager played at two Olympics and captained Australia to the Bronze medal in 1996. Before moving to Auckland, he was an assistant coach for the Australian men’s and women’s teams and the Australian Institute of Sport, as well as coaching the Australia junior men and women. Hager is FIH Coach High Performance.

Strengths:
“We have selected a well-rounded team that is versatile, quick and has players that have a high work ethic,” says Hager. “They are also probably the most united group of players I have worked with. What is best for the team always comes well above any personal goals.” New Zealand are known for their physical fitness, speed and passion.

Weaknesses:
With twelve players making their Olympic debut, it will be interesting to see how the team performs in this competitive Olympic tournament. The Black Sticks women struggle to play consistently on a high level. After winning the FIH Champions Challenge in 2009, they turned fifth at the 2010 FIH Champions Trophy, finished seventh at the 2010 FIH World Cup, took Silver at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, won Bronze at the 2011 FIH Champions Trophy, claimed the 2011 Oceania Cup and finished sixth at the 2012 FIH Champions Trophy.

Crystal Ball:
New Zealand has tough opponents in Pool B. Coach Hager says the Black Sticks are realistic about their medal chances: “We are under no illusions about how tough it will be to win a medal. They are calling our pool the ‘pool of death.’ The girls know they will have to play consistently well to win a medal.” Reaching the Semi Final in Pool B including Argentina, Germany, Australia, South Africa and USA is not impossible but needs consistency. The Black Sticks will try everything to top their all-time Olympic placement which is a sixth place taken in Athens 2004, Sydney 2000 and Los Angeles 1984. They will do everything to avoid a disappointing outcome like it happened in Beijing 2008 when they finished last.