First match critical to NZ's World Cup hopes

MATT RICHENS
Last updated 05:00 31/05/2014
Colin Batch
Photosport
COLIN BATCH: The Black Sticks coach and his team face a must-win match against Germany at the World Cup in Holland tonight.

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Black Sticks men's coach Colin Batch is giving little away, but you get the feeling the calm Aussie is expecting big things from his mob at the World Cup.

Speaking from The Hague in Holland, Batch was reluctant to look past his side's first match of the World Cup, a potential tournament-defining game against Korea.

New Zealand's tournament opener isn't until Monday morning, but the enormity of the occasion is clear.

With only the top two from each six-team pool progressing, their cup could be as good as over if they drop the first game.

New Zealand are ranked No 6 in the tournament and third in their pool behind world No 2 Germany and No 3 the Netherlands.

For New Zealand to reach the semifinals and have a shot at a medal for the first time, not only will they likely need to upset either Germany or the hosts, they will also need to beat Korea (No 7), Argentina (No 11) and South Africa (No 12).

There's plenty on this performance for the Black Sticks squad of 16 players, who boast an average of 146 caps each.

After surprising many by finishing second in the World Hockey Final tournament, hopes were high the men's side had turned a corner and was heading back towards the top of the game.

But then a surprise fifth in the second-tier Champions Challenge tournament brought them crashing back to earth.

In fact, they only lost one game at that tournament - in a shootout - but it was the quarterfinal.

If captain Dean Couzins and co want to be taken seriously as a top side again, they need to perform well in the Netherlands over the next two weeks.

It all starts with Korea and finding a way of breaking down their unconventional penalty corner defence.

The Koreans won the Champions Challenge in April and defended every one of their 14 penalty corners.

The Koreans have proven a tricky opposition of late for New Zealand. Since the 2010 World Cup the two sides have met 25 times, New Zealand have won just eight.

To progress to the semifinals, Batch said it would take consistency, executing plans and "an act of brilliance here or there".

"But the guys are in the right frame of mind and ready to go. This is the pinnacle. Of course, we want to win the tournament or win a medal, but at this stage we're just focused on Korea on Monday."

Meanwhile, the fifth-ranked women begin their tournament tonight against world No 12 Belgium. They too have aspirations of making the top four and are a better chance than the men.

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The return of Stacey Michelsen and Katie Glynn from long-term injuries adds depth to the side and attacking venom. The Kayla Whitelock-led team is expected to beat Belgium, Japan (world No 9) and Korea (No 8), but will need to cause a boilover against world No 1 and hosts the Netherlands or the tough Australians (No 4) whom the Black Sticks haven't beaten in their last three encounters.

- Stuff

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