Comm Games time cutthroat for goalkeepers

MATT RICHENS
Last updated 05:00 01/06/2014
Bianca Russell
Photosport

BEHIND THE GRILL: Black Sticks goalkeeper Bianca Russell knows pressure is on for the Commonwealth Games.

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It's already one of the most unenviable jobs in sport, but for the New Zealand hockey goal keepers, Commonwealth Games years are as cutthroat as they come.

Soon after pushing themselves to make the squad for the World Cup - currently running in The Hague - one of them is likely to get cut for the Commonwealth Games.

The two keepers in each squad work as hard as anyone and, in both the Black Sticks men's and women's set-ups, they play nice.

They push each other, help train each other and form a nice little team within a team. Being cannon-fodder for angry strikers will do that.

Then after the World Cup the rules change.

Each team must take 18 players including at least two goalies to FIH tournaments like the World Cup, but for the Commonwealth Games (and the Olympics) the goal posts move.

Squads have a maximum of 16 and there are no requirements on the number of goalies.

That's seen a recent shift away from the spare stopper so sides can carry an extra outfielder.

The move to have just one goalie is a calculated risk, says Hockey New Zealand high performance manager Terry Evans, but one that now makes sense with the increased tempo and focus on fitness. It's also a punt which most coaches take.

"The philosophy behind it is that the physical demands on the field players nowadays are so significant that it's better to have an extra [field player]," Evans said this week from inside the Black Sticks camp in Holland.

"It's a gamble, sure, because if your goalie gets injured then you're left without one so what most teams do is upskill a field player to step in in case of an emergency. It's the more aggressive move rather than the conservative option of having that spare player there just in case the goalie gets injured."

At the Olympics a goalie and a spare field player can at least travel with the team as cover, just not stay in the village. At the Commonwealth Games there is no such luxury.

So when Bianca Russell, Sally Rutherford, Devon Manchester and Hamish McGregor come back from the Netherlands, the nervous looks will start.

Russell and Rutherford both had stints as Beth Jurgeleit's back-up and are now sharing the top spot. There is unlikely to be any sharing in Glasgow next month as the both the men's and women's Black Sticks look certain to take one keeper each.

But there are no hard feelings. Not publicly at least.

"The competition can be good for us," said Russell, who pipped Rutherford to be the Black Sticks women's goalie for the London Olympics.

"We push each other hard and we obviously want to be as good as we can for ourselves and more importantly, for the team."

McGregor, who was at the Olympics but only as cover, understood the move to take an extra field player and said little changed for Manchester or him.

"It does sound cutthroat, but it's no secret to us or anything. We're pushing for that top spot anyway. No one wants to be the second best at anything."

AT A GLANCE

The Black Sticks women's team opened their World Cup campaign overnight last night against Belgium.  The men's first game is at 3.30am tomorrow morning, against Korea.

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