Make or break for Black Sticks against USA

SIMON PLUMB IN LONDON
Last updated 12:29 04/08/2012
Emily Naylor
IAIN MCGREGOR/Fairfax NZ
DOUBLE CENTURY: Emily Naylor could play her 200th game for the Black Sticks tomorrow.

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Tomorrow morning the women's Black Sticks could plant an important step towards an Olympic semi-final - and a guaranteed shot at a medal.

Locked in a four-way tie at the top of Pool B with Argentina, Germany and Australia, victory against the United States tomorrow is crucial to safely positioning Mark Hager's team with one round-robin match of the hockey tournament left to play.

Barring a miracle, Australia will beat South Africa in the next round, a team who have conceded 13 goals in losing all three games so far. And with the task of world number three Germany in their final pool game, New Zealand must keep pace at the top by putting the Americans to the sword.

With Germany and Argentina set to take points off each other when they meet tomorrow, a high-scoring win over the USA would probably leave the women's team requiring just a draw against the Germans to qualify for the semi-finals.

The 10th-ranked Americans have been impressive at London 2012 however, recording a shock 1-0 win over gold medal favourites Argentina and fighting well against top three team Germany in a 2-1 loss.

Essential to New Zealand's chances is recovering momentum from Friday morning's 2-1 defeat to Argentina, a game in which New Zealand played well and perhaps should have snatched a draw.

The good news is that since the women's team's horror 2008 Games in Beijing, in which they lost every single match including a 2-1 defeat to the USA, New Zealand has won six of the last seven meetings against tomorrow's opponents.

Their most recent encounter, in Auckland four months ago, resulted in a 3-2 Kiwi win and the Americans have to go back to September 2011 for their last positive result against a side much improved under Hager.

It's also a game which could see Emily Naylor land her 200th cap, currently stuck on 199 and battling a niggling back injury.

For Hager, who has taken the national women's team by the scruff the neck and hauled them from 12th in the world rankings to sixth, the next week could prove his crowning glory as a coach.

Himself a two-time Olympian, if the Australian could guide New Zealand to a medal it would be one of the most dramatic turnarounds world hockey has seen in the space of a single Olympic cycle.

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