Black Stick Emily Naylor hits milestone

BRENDON EGAN
Last updated 05:00 12/04/2014
Emily Naylor
PACESETTER: Emily Naylor is to become the most capped women's Black Stick of all time.

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Emily Naylor doesn't remember the result of her debut for the New Zealand women's hockey team 10 years ago.

She does recall being a bundle of nerves and the calming presence of the captain at the time, Suzie Muirhead.

It seems only fitting Naylor will overtake Muirhead as the most-capped player in Black Sticks women's history when she plays her 239th game today against Australia at the six nations tournament in Hastings.

"It's a real honour to overtake someone I look up to like Suzie Muirhead," Naylor said.

"She was a level-headed player and when you're young and come into the team, it's nice to have a captain that's pretty welcoming to the young ones."

Plenty has changed since Naylor first wore the black shirt against Great Britain at an Olympic qualifying tournament in 2004. For the record, the Black Sticks drew 2-2 that day.

The hockey schedule has become jam-packed. When Naylor started out, New Zealand played about 20 tests a year. These days, they can easily play 40 in an Olympic or World Cup year.

There have also been major changes to the way the sport is played. Teams are fitter than ever before and the pace of the game has become lightning fast. Further developments are afoot, with the International Hockey Federation set to introduce four 15-minute quarters instead of 35-minute halves.

"Nowadays, every team is so fast and fit and plays really attacking hockey. I saw Suzie the other day and she couldn't believe how fast the game has got since she was in there."

The Black Sticks have been major improvers on the international stage - rising to third in the world rankings after the 2012 London Olympics, where they finished fourth.

Under coach Mark Hager, Naylor said, they believed they could match it with the powerhouses of women's hockey, which was not always the case early in her career.

"Mark has been a big part of that. He's got us believing we can beat these teams and not to fear them. Respect them, but realise we're just as good if we play our game."

Naylor's time in the New Zealand side has been littered with fond memories.

The 28-year-old defender has attended three Olympic Games - the first in Athens in 2004, as an 18-year-old - and two Commonwealth Games.

At the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, the Manawatu player claimed a silver medal, following New Zealand's heart-breaking loss on penalties in the final against Australia.

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In 2010, she attended her first World Cup in Argentina, where New Zealand finished seventh.

"My first cap [was a highlight], even though I don't remember it very well. It's still special hearing that anthem for the first time. There's still no gold medals [at a major tournament]. I haven't got that gold, so that's something I'd love to get. Hopefully, this year."

Hockey has allowed Naylor to travel the world. She estimates she has visited 30 countries.

She had a three-year stint playing professionally in the Dutch league for the HGC club in The Hague, which had been extremely beneficial and exposed her to a higher standard of play.

Hager said Naylor had been an instrumental figure over the past decade. She had taken her game to the next level after the 2008 Beijing Olympics and been a key part of the side's success.

"She's always been a really tenacious defender. She gets in the way and makes some really good intercepts. She's been a real rock for us.

"The area she's developed the most is her attacking ability. She's better at getting forward with the ball and creating opportunities."

Hager believed Naylor would go down as one of the greatest women's hockey players in New Zealand history when she eventually called time on her career.

"She's been a stalwart of New Zealand hockey for 10 years and in that time we've seen a person really grow. She's probably been one of the best defenders that's ever played for New Zealand."

Naylor was undecided on the prospect of carrying on through to the 2016 Rio Olympics. New Zealand have a busy few months ahead with the World Cup, Commonwealth Games and Champions Trophy all on the radar.

"I'm not really making any decisions yet," she said.

"I'm taking each year as it comes. I'll assess after this year and see how the body is feeling. I do love it. We will just wait and see."

Today, her focus is firmly on beating the Hockeyroos and sealing a place in tomorrow's six nations final against Argentina.

Fairfax NZ

- Wellington

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