Black Sticks primed to punch above weight

SIMON PLUMB IN LONDON
Last updated 05:00 26/07/2012
Stacey Michelsen, Kayla Sharland and Emily Naylor
LAWRENCE SMITH/Fairfax NZ

UP AND READY: Black Sticks (from left) Emily Naylor and co-captains Kayla Sharland and Stacey Michelsen open their Olympic schedule against Australia on Sunday.

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Co-captain Emily Naylor is rallying a young women's Black Sticks team to embrace hunger, not fear, ahead of Sunday's crucial Olympic opener against rivals Australia.

While only 26, Naylor is an old head in a women's hockey squad light on Olympic experience. Of the 16 players on Mark Hager's London 2012 roster, only captain Kayla Sharland, Krystal Forgesson and Gemma Flynn have also previously experienced the cauldron of the Games.

But that hasn't stopped Naylor, who yesterday also detailed the establishment of an in-house leadership group to help steel debutants, from tipping the 2012 Olympic troop as the best New Zealand squad she's ever played in - including the class of 2011 who snatched bronze from the 2011 Champions Trophy.

Clearly, anything other than a medal from London 2012 will represent a disappointing Olympic campaign.

“This is definitely the best Black Sticks team I've ever been involved with - and it's also the best-prepared,” Naylor said.

“The preparation has been a lot more professional, so thorough, down to the smallest things, and it started well before we left New Zealand.

“There's a real mix of skills and experience in this group and although not many of us have played in the Olympics before, there's belief within the team that we can get results in London.

“This group's been together for the last three or four years and a lot of us have played at other major events like the Champions Trophy where we've beaten some of the top teams.

“We need to use those results and not play with fear, but hunger, to go out and win.

“We've got nothing to lose. We're ranked sixth in the world and want to punch above our weight."

With four previous campaigns behind them collectively, Naylor and Sharland have been handed added responsibility in executing that aggressive outlook - something Naylor described as an information bridge between players and staff.

“Some of the players have formed a leadership group, we get together with the staff and talk through any problems people might be having and generally how well individuals are tracking,” she said.

“We also had a chat to the squad before we came away to tell them what an Olympic Games is like. It's not about hierarchy, the squad operates on one level. It's more about helping those are new to this environment.

"Athens was great for me because like a lot of our players now, it was my first time at the Games. Beijing was not enjoyable because we struggled, hopefully, London will be third time lucky."

The women's Black Sticks' opening match is against Australia on Sunday, 7.30pm.

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- Fairfax Media

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