New Zealand’s captain, Kayla Whitelock, is one of the most respected hockey athletes in the world. A towering midfield presence for the Black Sticks, and a player who regularly gets on the score-sheet, at this World Cup, Kayla has only found the net once, but her presence at the heart of the Black Sticks midfield remains a crucial foundation from which the team can attack. When Kayla is on her game, New Zealand are always in with a shot. She has recently become one half of a New Zealand sporting celebrity couple after she married rugby star George Whitelock, a one-time All Black and captain of the Christchurch-based Crusaders team.
We caught up with Kayla after her Black Sticks team had drawn their last pool game with Australia 0-0. The result left the Black Sticks mid-table, just out of the qualification places for the semi-finals. Talking about her team's performance, the Black Sticks captain said: "The team has been consistent so far, with strong patches throughout the games but not for the full 70 minutes. If we extend our strong patches we will have a better success rate and the results will fall in our favour." Certainly the Black Sticks are still kicking themselves for failing to capitalise on their chances against Korea – a match they lost 1-0 – as those three points would have put them in a stronger position to challenge for semi-final places.
Assessing the other teams in the competition Kayla said: "The Dutch are looking the strongest so far. They are already playing some great hockey and look as if they can get better. The surprise package is the USA, they are playing some great hockey and looking really good. They have caused a lot of surprises."
Just a month after the World Cup finishes, New Zealand will be competing on the international stage again, this time in the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland. The Black Sticks have a very real chance of winning a medal there. In the previous Commonwealth Games, held in New Delhi, India, New Zealand took silver after losing out on penalty strokes to Australia. "We want to go one better this time," said Kayla, "We came so close four years ago." Among the teams that stand between New Zealand and that gold medal are Australia, England and South Africa – all teams that on their day New Zealand are capable of beating.
"The strength in our team is our speed and our ability to get behind the opposition's defence, but obviously there are areas we need to work on. I would say that the work we do between now and the Commonwealth's is focused on both ends of the pitch. We need to finish the opportunities we create in front of goal and we need to limit opportunities in our defensive circle."
For the Black Sticks team it has been a year of travelling. I asked Kayla how the team coped with so much time away from home. "I think everyone is pretty good with Skype so it is easy to stay in touch with family and friends. It helps that we all get on really well, so it feels like a home away from home. We are going home for a few days rest and relaxation before Glasgow, so that will be nice for everyone."
Along with the coaching team, much of the responsibility for team morale lies with the senior players within the team. As captain, Kayla strongly feels this is her remit, but she also believes that the players themselves need to work together when things get tough. "Of course I try to encourage everyone to work hard, but if things are not going to plan then it is within everyone's capability to run and chase hard. You can make your own fortunes through hard work. If we do suffer a loss then it is a case of re-grouping and focusing on what's in front of us, not get stuck thinking too hard on what has happened in the past."
Back in sport-loving New Zealand there is a growing interest in the fortunes of the Black Sticks, both men and women, among the population. Rugby Union remains the number one sport in the country, while the women's netball team – the Silver Ferns – have a huge following, but the exploits of the Black Sticks, particularly at the London 2012 Olympics has ignited interest in the sport and there has been a significant increase in both participants and followers in the country. A medal at the Commonwealth Games would be a great boost for the popularity of the Black Sticks in a country that loves sporting success.
To cement New Zealand's impact on the international hockey scene, Auckland will be hosting the Women's Hockey World League Finals in 2017, an event that will raise levels of interest to greater heights.
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