Black Sticks women bullish for hockey World Cup
There's ever-growing belief within the women's Black Sticks hockey team, but finding the balance between confidence and expectation can be difficult, says coach Mark Hager.
Hager and his 18-strong squad yesterday headed for The Hague and the world's fifth-ranked team are confident they can push for a semifinal spot, something only ever done once in 12 previous World Cups, in 1986, also in the Netherlands.
Maybe it's Hager, maybe it's the 1649 caps the team shares between them or maybe it's just recent results, but the current side is no longer happy with just being able to compete.
Gone are the days where a gutsy draw or a narrow loss were considered good results, this current lot want to beat everyone.
And they can, just not as consistently as they would like.
"It's a bit of a catch-22 for us at the moment," Hager said.
"We play with no fear because we know we can foot it with the best teams in the world, but there is also a little bit of fear now because of our ranking and the fact we're expected to beat certain teams."
There is a real winning culture in the side, Hager said, driven by the senior players for whom winning wasn't always as common an occurrence.
Four of the current side, captain Kayla Whitelock, Emily Naylor, Krystal Forgesson and Gemma Flynn, were part of the 2008 Beijing Olympics team who lost every game at the tournament.
"I think that really hurt players like Kayla," Hager said.
"She reminds the girls about it, that she never wants to feel like that again. We now go into every game trying to win it. We're a little bit inconsistent with it, but our number one focus now is winning, not just competing."
After a build-up in Dutch city Leiden, the Black Sticks begin their World Cup campaign on May 31 against Belgium.
With the home side - comfortably the best team in the world - in New Zealand's pool and a grudge match with Australia waiting for them, a good start was crucial, Hager said.
"We're under no illusions about how hard it's going to be. Holland are quite away ahead of everyone else, especially when they play well. That doesn't mean they won't get a little nervous around semifinal time. Then we really see a blanket over the next 10 to 12 teams and anyone can beat each other.
"Reflecting on past tournaments, getting off to a good start is so important. It builds momentum and if you can win your first two, then the pressure of the points table can affect other sides."
An illness swept through the camp last week before they left, but Hager was strangely relieved.
"Honestly, I'm happy it's happened, well, happy it's happened now. It normally happens just as the tournament is starting so to have that sort of bad luck out of the way, that's got to be a good thing."
This is Hager's seventh World Cup. He won gold in 1986 with the Australian men's side, a bronze in 1990 and 1994 then a silver as Australian men's assistant coach in 2006.
He's confident of another strong performance.
"I get my confidence from the girls. If they're feeling good then I read that and I feel good. This should be a good tournament."
Meanwhile, Hager was still contemplating his future with the side. Off-contract in December, Hager said how the Black Sticks go at the World Cup and Commonwealth Games will help him decide whether to stay on or whether to apply for the soon to be vacant Australian men's side coaching position for the third time.