BLACKSTICKS HANDED 2011 TROPHY WILDCARD
The FIH is extending the tournament, to be held in Amsterdam in June from six teams to eight. It is reported that the FIH approached the Dutch, as the host country of the tournament, and, with their agreement, decided to extend the Champions Trophy to include the next two ranked teams, that is New Zealand (7th) and Korea (8th). For "Black Sticks" coach, Mark Hager, this was great news and for the team. He told reporters,” This is a fantastic opportunity and a great boost to our high performance programme as we build up to the 2012 London Olympics.” “There is a real difference in the level of competition between the two tournaments and being invited to the Champions Trophy means we can play the best teams in the world for the second year running, which is great experience for the players,” “We will be taking a full strength team and our target will be to finish in the top six,” says Hager.
Previously, until their appearance in Nottingham this year, they had not competed in the Champions Trophy since 2006 and instead had played in the lower ranked Champions Challenge tournament. In Nottingham they had a tough tournament. It was agonising straight losses against the Netherlands , China , Argentina and Germany. But, they then pulled off the surprise of the tournament holding what till then had been the seemingly invincible new England, coming out with a credible 2-2 draw ( They’d effectively stopped the rot and also ultimately prevented England from making the final) They redeemed themselves in the 5th and 6th playoffs managing to take the scalp of China with a 4-3 win , currently world ranked three above them. They finished 8th in the World Cup at Rosario, where they again beat the Chinese , this time 3-0 , beat India by the same margin but were beaten convincingly by the Dutch, German's and the Australians. But, the Delhi Commonwealth games, where of course the bulk of the teams were lower ranked, they made it to the final and came away with silver losing by the closest of margins in the shoot out after extra time. They’d beaten a flagging England by a 4-1 margin.
It feels that China and Korea may not be the force they have been and certainly, the top ranked Europeans and the Argentine world champions are currently in ascendency, largely due to a new professionalism in preparation and increasing levels of match specific fitness. England would hope at least to conquer the Chinese in Amsterdam and swap places in the rankings. The famously competitive antipodean rivals embrace the same scientific approach to competition on a world level. Carlos Retegui, chief coach of Las Leonas maintains stability, continuing to hold the reins successfully in post, helped now by the arrival of new fitness coach, (ex Pumas) Alejandro Labonia to replace Luis Barrionuevo .
The Argentine appointment augers well and shows that they expect the squad to be even fitter, even stronger, ( even though there have been a number of player experienced player retirements and despite concern , at Nottingham , that the team were on average, older than any of the other top teams.) They have great new players integrating really well into the current squad. The ex-World champions, the Dutch, with a point to make, have lost Herman Kruis but have a fresh coach in Max Caldas. The team appeared to have slightly lost their focus and that famous edge and ex Argentine international, Caldas is , without doubt, the man to inspire them. They will working hard with him to try and take the crown back from the South Americans. The Argentine's, I read, will be put through an even more vigorous and tailored coaching programme to raise the bar even higher. They have a relatively packed international schedule with all the benefits that such regular high profile games bring in terms of match and pitch fitness plus the Pan Am games to keep them sharp. The England women's squad have never been better trained or prepared and plans are still ongoing even though they have outperformed previous national squads since the centralised training programme really kicked in and they just get better and better. That is a relatively young side , but newcomer youngsters like Charlotte Craddock, Laura Unsworth and Georgie Twigg have excelled in top level senior games.
I fully expect that in Holland next June we will see even pacier, stronger games with Australia, absent this year in Nottingham , looking to set the cat amongst the pigeons. The climate in Delhi took its toll but at Den Haag, the climate at least will be more temperate. At this level, on the ball, skills iron out and are pretty evenly distributed and , as is in all tournaments, it is a combination of "corporate" superior mental strength, levels of fitness , relative stamina over many days of games, the ability of the team as a unified whole , to peak and play their best consistently as an efficient unit throughout the pool stages. At this stage it is hard to predict how the Trophy will pan out. New Zealand are an improving, developing squad as are England ( and we haven't seen their best yet; I believe there is more to come) Australia are the ones with a point to prove. The Dutch have been consistently great in form and , as host nation will have bounced back to be a real threat and will be in the final I am pretty convinced. It is hard to see Argentina dropping in form. The Germans are harder to predict and yet I find it difficult to see them in the top final four. I doubt if China or Korea have time to hit the kind of winning form needed in what is a relatively short space of time before the Trophy comes out of the cabinet in Holland.
The teams competing in the 2011 Trophy , in order of current world FIH rankings, will be Argentina,(1) Netherlands,(2) Germany,(3) China,(4) England,(5)Australia,(6) New Zealand (7)and Korea.(8)
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photo Getty Images
photo Getty Images