Prospects of the Antipodeans


NEW ZEALAND qualified last for the World Cup and nearly did not get that opportunity. For them, last year's highlight was a battle of the boardroom with the International Hockey Federation.

New Zealand was originally omitted from the World Cup qualifying tournament in Edinburgh.

The national federation began court proceedings to challenge the international organisation's decision to exclude them, arguing that, after finishing 10th in the last World Cup, they should not be ranked behind countries such as Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and Wales.

New Zealand made the qualifying tournament in Edinburgh after Zimbabwe withdrew because of a lack of funding and New Zealand secured the seventh and final World Cup berth from the qualifying tournament with a 4-0 victory over Canada.

Having earned a place for Kuala Lumpur, New Zealand's reward is to play defending World Champions the Netherlands on the opening day of the World Cup. That prospect looks less daunting as New Zealand defeated Netherlands 3-1 in Kuala Lumpur in the World Cup warm up tournament on January 20 this year. This was the first time in hockey history that New Zealand defeated the Netherlands.

New Zealand has four players from its under-21 national team in its World Cup squad, Blair Hopping, Phillip Burrows, Hayden Shaw and Ryan Archibald, with under-18 player Peter Strafford, knocking on the door for selection with the chance to cement a place in the team by his inclusion in the Kiwi team for the January six-Nation tournament in Kuala Lumpur. Of these young players, Archibald has the most experience with four years in the national senior squad which has earned him an international reputation as a midfielder of impact and a dangerous striker. Hayden Shaw looks more like an old-style All-Black rugby fullback in the mould of Don Clarke with a take no prisoners attitude which he carries on his broad shoulders.

Senior players Simon Towns, Brett Leaver, Bevan Hari, and Umesh Parag, are the nucleus of New Zealand's midfield attack, through along the centre of the pitch but New Zealand continues to favour a right side attack which coach Kevin Towns has been reassessing during the 12 months since he resumed the coaching role after New Zealand's disastrous failure to qualify for the Olympic Games. Towns will be delighted with a top 10 place in the World Cup and will be hailed as a national hero if his team gains a top six place.

The one thing New Zealand has over its Tasman Sea neighbours, Australia, is an Olympic gold medal from the 1976 Montreal Olympics where New Zealand won the final 1-0 against an Australian team which included now international coaches, Ric Charlesworth, Jim Irvine, Terry Walsh and David Bell.

Australia is currently ranked second in the world by taking silver at the Champions Trophy at Rotterdam in November 2001, an improvement on its bronze medal place at the Sydney Olympics despite losing seasoned veteran captain Michael York, strikers Stephen Davies and Michael Brennan and right half Stephen Holt.

New coach, Barry Dancer, forced the retirement of seasoned veteran Jay Stacy as one of his first acts after his appointment but has brought back Atlanta Olympian Mathew Smith who was dropped by former coach Terry Walsh for the Sydney Olympic Games.

Australia plays hockey at a furious pace, intent on creating scoring chances. Twenty five penetrations into the opposition circle is common and the team philosophy is that 30% of circle penetrations should result in shots on goal and 30% of shots on goal should be converted into goals. On that basis, 34 circle penetrations are needed for three goals. Therefore, penalty corner conversions are essential.

Australia uses three conversion methods. First, there is the drag-flick of Troy Elder, who is in the same league as Bram Lomans, Sohail Abbas and Jorge Lombi with the accuracy and power of his penalty corner conversions.

Secondly, there is fullback Mathew Wells who has one of the fastest and most accurate drives for a fullback which he puts to full use in hitting conversions into the left and right pockets of goal. Third is the soft variation, intended to hit the goalkeeper's pads and rebound to the bevy of strikers with superb reflexes to strike into goal. These including Craig Victory, Mathew Smith, Adam Commens, Michael McCann and Jamie Dwyer.

Elder, Victory and Smith are the seasoned players amongst the strikers but the waif-thin Victory is susceptible to injury and sat out the pre-World Cup tournament in Kuala Lumpur.

Dancer named the World Cup team on January 30 and it includes the key players new captain Paul Gaudoin, the outstanding midfield pivot Brent Livermore, former vice captain Daniel Sproule and Dean Butler in defence, Bevan George taking over the sliding right half role Stephen Holt perfected and Jeremy Hiskins who has matured and cemented his place in the team since the Olympic Games.

For coach Barry Dancer, nothing less than a top three finish is acceptable and he will be aiming to topple favourites Germany in the final.