Aussies, yes! but don’t say no to Kiwis

Ric Charlesworth... Australia’s redoubtable coach.-R. V. MOORTHY

The Aussies look formidable with a surfeit of strikers, while the Kiwis have a fast game embellished with precise passes. Over to Bruce Hamilton.

The 4.3 million Kiwis could fit into most large cities in India, and the rest of the world for that matter, making New Zealand the smallest country by population represented at the World Cup.

The nation is a consistent achiever in many sports. New Zealand made the final of cricket’s Champions Trophy in 2009 and has qualified for the 2010 soccer World Cup in South Africa — all from a tiny population.

The Kiwis have played three tough tournaments in the last six months, defeating India, Pakistan, Canada, China, Belgium, South Africa and Argentina in preparation for New Delhi. They met powerhouse neighbour Australia last August and lost 3-1 in the final of the Oceania qualifying event and qualified for New Delhi defeating Malaysia 2-1 in the final of the qualifying tournament in New Zealand in November. In December 2009, New Zealand won the Champions Challenge defeating Pakistan 4-2 to earn a place in the next Champions Trophy in Germany.

New Zealand’s key players are midfielder Ryan Archibald and strikers Phillip Burrows and Simon Child. Hayden Shaw will not cast his 6’ 5” (196cm) shadow in New Delhi as he has started a career as a primary school teacher in Christchurch and has made himself unavailable for selection. Coach Shane McLeod’s replacement penalty corner flicker is Andrew Hayward, highest scorer with seven at the World Cup qualifier.

Ball speed is the key to New Zealand’s success, whether coming out of defence with long, lightning-fast passes from Blair Hopping or Dean Couzins or through the midfield from Ryan Archibald, Shea MacAleese or Arun Panchia. Precision passes to the high strikers, Phillip Burrows, Simon Child and Nick Wilson have consistently exposed the defence of the opposition.

New Zealand is expected to make the semi-finals from Pool A. The team will deal efficiently with Canada and Argentina and is capable of a win or draw against the Netherlands, Korea and Germany.

New Zealand’s fast game will target Netherlands’ slowest defender Taeke Taekema and may give it full points. Its rotation of five strong defenders has the strength to thwart Korea’s fast breaks and at worst force a draw, giving the Kiwis a place in the last four. A win over Germany in the last match in Pool A is possible as the defending champion will have been stretched to the limit of its physical fitness and could fall apart as it did in the final of the Champions Trophy against Australia in December.

A semi-final place for New Zealand will possibly ensure two automatic places at the London Olympics from the Oceania zone, leaving placing in this World Cup to determine whether Europe or Asia will lose one of its three qualifying places for 2012.

Australia’s second place in the world rankings makes it a serious contender for a semi-final berth from Pool B.

Richard Charlesworth, Australia’s coach, has sprung a couple of surprise selections, omitting veteran Brent Livermore (318 caps) and Brent Dancer (son of former coach Barry Dancer) from the squad which won the Champions Trophy. Olympian Kiel Brown returns in defence and thrice-capped Kieran Govers is added as a striker.

Charlesworth is still searching for the right replacements for retirees Bevan George and Matthew Wells to team with Mark Knowles in defence. Luke Doerner is an ace drag-flicker and has worked hard on his positional play and speed, but has more to do. Matthew Butturini is the fastest Australian player — he runs down the penalty corner drag-flicks for Australia — and has the flexibility to score field goals, as does Fergus Kavanagh. Kiel Brown steadies Australia’s defence when he concentrates on his positional play to cover the fast breaks of Pakistan and Spain, while Athens gold-medallist Liam de Young is one of the most attacking defenders in international hockey.

Charlesworth has a surfeit of world-class strikers in three-time FIH International Player of the year Jamie Dwyer, Des Abbott, Grant Schubert and Glenn Turner. Into this mix add newcomer Kieran Govers, who is yet to score for Australia but has shown Charlesworth some worth in his three matches against South Korea in January this year.

Australia’s first match against England will be tough. England has improved greatly and only lost 1-2 to Australia at the Champions Trophy. England will want a win, or draw at worst, while Charlesworth will want a decisive, first match win.

India and South Africa should provide three-point results for Australia. In India’s first round clash with Pakistan, neither team will leave anything in reserve. India will face the Aussies 48 hours after playing Pakistan. The host may find Australia’s speed and sharp pin-point passes hard to cope with.

Spain will be Australia’s toughest opposition in Pool B, notwithstanding its 3-10 thrashing in the Champions Trophy and — despite the absence of striker Santi Freixa from the squad.

Australia wants to win the World Cup for a second time — having been bridesmaid for the last two Cups — losing to Germany each time with coach Bernhard Peters targeting Australia’s weakest point at right defender in both finals to win.

Ric Charlesworth knows something about winning World Cups. He was in Australia’s 1986 winning team in London (Willesden) and was the player of the tournament and highest goal scorer. Most countries would want him on their coaching bench in a Cup final.

(The author is a well known hockey writer in Australia based in Sydney)