New Zealand still in the running for place at the FIH Pro League Grand Final

New Zealand continue to push for a place at the FIH Pro League Grand Finals, which take place at the end of June, as they beat USA to record a fifth win out of 12 games.

The Black Sticks, with new Head Coach Graham Shaw in charge, put on a display of tireless running, incisive passing and hard-working defence. USA for their part were equally industrious all over the pitch and created many scoring chance – finishing was the key difference between the two teams.

This was a meeting of two end-to-end teams who could be relied on to leave absolutely everything on the pitch. The FIH Pro League match between USA (FIH World Ranking:12) and New Zealand (WR:6) had all the makings of a physically demanding and uncompromising encounter. The host nation are renowned for their work rate and resilience, while their opponents have a speedy attack that, when at its best, is one of the best in the world.

Graham Shaw, fresh from leading Ireland women to silver at the Vitality Hockey Women’s World Cup, has had just two weeks with his team but said he was impressed by the fantastic work rate of the players, particularly Black Sticks captain Stacey Michelsen. In a pre-match interview Shaw said he was looking for a “big game” from Michelesen, and the New Zealand stalwart answered the call in some style, winning Player of the Match for her efforts.

For USA Head Coach Janneke Schopman it has been a difficult preparation period as the team has lost some players through injury in recent days. The Dutch coach said she was very aware of the danger posed by their opponents: “New Zealand are one of the most dangerous teams in the world. They attack very well but they leave gaps in defence so we will be looking to exploit that.”

The last time the two teams met in the FIH Pro League, New Zealand won 3-1. This time around, New Zealand needed the win in order to keep their hopes of reaching the FIH Pro League Grand Final alive.

With that aim in mind, New Zealand were nearly off the mark early in the game when they won their first penalty corner but Alyssa Manley was on hand to calmly clear off the line.

As the quarter played out, New Zealand began to spray the ball all over the pitch. Architect of many moves was Michelesen and the midfielder was able to find Olivia Merry, Rose Keddell and Alia Jacques deep in the USA defence with some visionary passes.

For their part, USA were looking for quick turnovers and the speed they moved the ball up the pitch was enough to cause consternation among the higher-ranked team’s defence. Grace O’Hanlon was called on to come out and meet the play on several occasions.

The deadlock was broken midway through the second quarter when Tarryn Davey fired in a reverse stick shot and it pinged into the goal past a wrong-footed Kelsey Bing in the USA goal.

USA went straight back into the attack but found the New Zealand defence in obstinate mood as they got bodies back behind the ball no matter what USA threw at them.

Captain Kat Sharkey thought she had scored the equaliser but the shot was judged to have been dangerous and New Zealand maintained their advantage into the half-time break.

“It is a game that we expected,” was Schopman’s assessment of the first half. “New Zealand want to go forward and we are dealing with that. We have created opportunities ourselves. I think both teams are scared of each other’s counter attacking abilities but we need to have confidence in our own skills and attack that defence a bit more.”

In fact it was New Zealand who found the gap in the USA defence just one minute into the second half. Michelsen took the ball into the USA circle and her reverse stick shot forced a save from Bing. Shiloh Gloyn was able to pounce on the rebound and tap home.

Despite the two-goal deficit, USA didn’t stop playing their quick, attacking style. Margaux Paolino and Mackenzie Allessie were particularly active down the USA left side. The problem was finishing, something which has been USA’s downfall for much of their Pro League campaign.

USA’s quest for goals was not helped by the fact that O’Hanlon was in sparkling form in the Black Sticks’ goal. Her most agile save involved a double save from a penalty corner towards the end of the third quarter. Over the course of a goalmouth scramble, the keeper had to save low to her left before twisting 180 degrees to save the rebound as it went to her right.

The final 15 minutes saw both teams ramp up the pace as USA continued to push for goals and New Zealand responded to the rise in intensity levels.

Olivia Merry added a third goal and extended her position as top scorer in the FIH Pro League with nine goals in total. The goal was beautifully created by Michelesen, who sprinted with the ball out of her own defence before releasing a pass that led to Merry finding herself in possession with only the ‘keeper to beat. Merry was calmness personified as she finished a move that was straight out of the top drawer of hockey.

“It was really important for us to focus on counter-attacking and we did that today,” said Michelsen. “A huge part of our game is understanding the options ahead of us.”

“We have worked hard on maintaining the focus on the game,” she said, explaining how the team has retained focus despite the recent coaching changes. “We wanted to do better in the second half of the Pro League because we didn’t start well.”

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