Hager expects scrap against South Africa

00:00, Jul 31 2012
Charlotte Harrison
Charlotte Harrison battles for the ball in the Black Sticks win over Australia.

There were pats and slaps and sticks hoisted into the air and then there was Mark Hager's reaction.

The Black Sticks women's coach celebrated Sunday's 1-0 victory over Australia for all of 60 seconds and then quickly switched his attention to their next opponents South Africa (tonight at 9.45pm NZ time).

Hager wants six points in the bag after the opening two rounds of the Olympic hockey tournament at Riverbank Arena and that requires victory over what he regards as the most improved team in the women's game.

"South Africa are a real threat. They have some real firepower," he said.

"If we lose to South Africa it means we are back in the pack so we will put this one to bed and fight and scrap and claw.

"We would love to be on six points after two games but we know that won't be an easy task. South Africa are a quality team. They have been getting better over the last 12 months so they are a real danger for all teams in the competition."

Black Sticks captain Kayla Sharland is also wary of South Africa. She remarked before the tournament started that South Africa had based themselves in Europe for long periods over the past year and played close to 100 games against various opposition.

There might have been cause to reassess the captain and coach's assessment of South Africa after they were hammered 7-1 by Argentina on Sunday but whether the latter is just world class or the former over-rated won't be truly known until nearer 11 o'clock tonight.

"I think our pool will be damn close and come down to the last couple of days," Hager said.

"We play Germany and Aussie play Argentina and United States play South Africa so we could have all six teams playing for a semifinal spot."

So what's to be done?

Hager thought the Black Stcks turned over too much ball going forward against Australia and were guilty of playing too much down the middle rather than using the wings.

But there was much to admire about the win too, the first by the Black Sticks over Australia at an Olympics. This is a fit and fast team, most notably Anita Punt who, so the story goes, can beat some of the Black Sticks men in a 40m sprint.

The Black Sticks showed plenty of ticker too, which was evident when they defended in numbers to cover for Melody Cooper, who was sinbinned for 10 minutes in the second half against Australia.

Hager has his senior players Sharland, Emily Naylor, Charlotte Harrison and Clarissa Eshuis firing and his younger ones believing in themselves and on the evidence of Sunday, none more so than left half Samantha Charlton, 20.

Australian coach Adam Commens rates the Black Sticks highly.

"They have five or six world class players and they played well today," he said.

"They have the ability to beat any side. What we saw today was as good as I've seen them play, particularly in defence. They are a team on the up and certainly capable of winning medals."

The Black Sticks women have a modest Olympic record, their best finish being sixth in both 2000 (Sydney) and 2004 (Athens).

They were 12th and last in Beijing four years ago. If they beat South Africa tonight, and get a point or three against Argentina on Friday morning (NZ time) then that modest record might change.


Fairfax Media