FIH Pro League: Belgium’s women steal the headlines against Black Sticks in Auckland

Belgium’s Red Panthers upset the FIH World Rankings with a fine victory over hosts New Zealand on Match Day 5 of the FIH Pro League, with Auckland’s North Harbour Hockey Stadium staging the action.

Team captain Jill Boon hit a late winner in Belgium’s 1-0 victory against the higher ranked Black Sticks women, while Belgium’s men were involved in a thrilling 4-4 draw against New Zealand’s men before the world champions claimed the bonus point by winning the shoot-out.190201_Blackstickswomen-v-Belgium-130

Belgium’s Red Panthers (FIH World Ranking: 13) were impressive performers in the opening quarter of their match against the Black Sticks women (WR:6), with the visitors from Europe causing their higher ranked opponents numerous problems in what was the first ever meeting between the two sides on New Zealand soil. New Zealand shot-stopper Sally Rutherford was forced into action more times than she would have liked, although even she was helpless when Alexia ’T Serstevens rattled the inside of the post with a speculative backhand effort at the end of the first period.

The Europeans – who had travelled to Auckland from Argentina following last weekend’s 2-0 defeat against Las Leonas – were arguably the better side in the second quarter, although New Zealand had the better of scoring opportunities. Olivia Merry slapped a penalty corner effort wide of the target, which Amy Robinson and Sam Charlton also had very good chances but failed to threaten the goal of the excellent Aisling D’Hooghe.

D’Hooghe was the busier of the two goalkeepers in a third quarter dominated by the hosts, who won five penalty corners in the first seven minutes after the break but failed to make the most of their opportunities, thanks in no small part to some quality defending from the Red Panthers. Kirsten Pearce smashed a vicious backhand strike towards goal in the latter stages of the quarter, but the effort was comfortably pushed away by D’Hooghe’s left glove to keep the score at 0-0 going into the final quarter, raising the prospect of a shoot-out to settle the contest.

The final quarter could have gone either way, with Louise Versavel seeing a goal-bound effort inadvertently deflected wide by the stick of team-mate Alix Gerniers before a rapid190201_Blackstickswomen-v-Belgium-103 New Zealand counter-attack was blazed over the Belgium cross-bar by Kelsey Smith. The final five minutes were packed full of drama, especially for Red Panthers striker Jill Boon. The Belgian captain had a glorious chance to settle to contest when a foul on Versavel resulted in a penalty stroke, but Boon’s weak shot was saved with ease by New Zealand’s Grace O’Hanlon. However, Boon more than made up for her missed penalty stroke when she netted a sensational winner with less than two minutes of the contest remaining, showing stunning reflexes to volley Versavel’s thunderous pass into the roof of the net to give her team a fine victory away from home.

“I think it was really a great effort, we knew it was going to be a tough match”, said Player of the Match Alix Gerniers. “I think we showed a lot of character during the whole game. The work paid off and to score in the last minute, it’s great.”

New Zealand captain Stacey Michelsen said: “It was disappointing that we couldn’t convert our opportunities. At the moment that is a little bit of a theme for us, there is certainly a lot of work to be done in the attacking third.”

The meeting between reigning men’s world champions Belgium (WR:1) and host New Zealand was equally entertaining, with the idea that the world’s best team would coast to an easy victory being quickly abandoned. While the Red Lions – coached by New Zealander and former Black Sticks Head Coach Shane McLeod – were arguably the better team in the first period, they were regularly thwarted by some superb defending from the home favourites.

The game exploded into life in a second quarter that saw the Black Sticks take the lead before two goals from Belgium gave the visiting Europeans a 2-1 advantage into half time. Attacking talisman Hugo Inglis despatched an emphatic penalty stroke past goalkeeper Loick Van 190201_Blacksticksmen-v-Belgium-108Doren – younger brother of 2017 FIH Player of the Year Arthur Van Doren – after Stephen Jenness’s goal-bound shot hit the foot of a Belgian defender. Belgium’s response was immediate, with Cedric Charlier touching home before Maxime Plennevaux scored a sublime second, collecting an attempted clearance at chest height and brilliantly firing in from a narrow angle.

The two sides continued to trade blows after half time, with New Zealand pulling themselves level thanks to a Aiden Sarikaya’s stunning backhand strike into the roof of the net before a rare goal from defender Arthur Van Doren restored Belgium’s lead at the end of third quarter.

Just like the day’s earlier meeting between the women’s teams, the fourth quarter was dramatic and entertaining. A wonderful assist from Felix Denayer, passing behind his body, allowed Cedric Charlier to fire into the top corner of the New Zealand goal to give Belgium a 4-2 lead. Remarkably, New Zealand hit back with two goals to force a shoot-out, as a Nic Woods penalty corner and a high quality open play strike from Jenness, capitalising on Arthur Van Doren’s defensive error, ensured that the Black Sticks would take at least a point against the Olympic silver medallists.

To their great credit, Belgium were flawless in the shoot-out, scoring all four of their attempts to take the bonus point. Hugo Inglis saw his early attempt saved, with Belgium’s bonus point being guaranteed when Dylan Thomas was adjudged to have used the back of his stick when scoring, resulting in his effort being ruled out by the video umpire.

“The New Zealand Black Sticks are a really good team, we know that, and it was a really good battle so I hope the crowd enjoyed it”, said goal-scorer and Player of the Match Arthur Van Doren at the end of the contest. “We wanted the win, but will settle for two points now.”

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Discussing his team’s impressive fightback, New Zealand captain Blair Tarrant said: “It’s good to come back again, but we are disappointed for letting things slip at the start of the game. It’s a great opportunity to play the world champions at home, but we are setting high standards for ourselves and we want to do better than we did today.”

The FIH Pro League continues on Saturday 2 February with Australia’s men and women playing host to the Netherlands in Melbourne, while Argentina’s women take on visitors USA in Cordoba

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