OPINION: There's a game last year that sticks in my mind. I know we play a lot of tests - 26 last year and we've already played 20 this year including last night's against Argentina - but the 1-0 win against Spain last June stands out like a beacon to me.
It stands out because that was where this current Black Sticks team took a really big step, the first big step in what we think is exciting times for New Zealand men's hockey.
Spain had plenty of shots and created more opportunities, but we won. More importantly, the spirit we showed across the turf, the desperation in our defence, that was huge for us and, I believe, it worked as a catalyst for the side. It showed us what we could do when it all worked.
Our coach Colin Batch had been in the job a little while and was starting to stamp his mark, but the belief that result created and the confidence it gave us has helped us develop as a team and move to a level we've seldom been at. It's also a game we often refer back to.
Since then we finished second in the Hockey World League Final tournament and became the first New Zealand men's team to win a medal at a major tournament since the 1976 team became Olympic champions in Montreal.
That is something we really cherished, but we didn't play as consistently as we would have liked either. The plus side of that is we know there's still room for improvement.
We played a couple of poor games, but we also had a couple of really good performances. We obviously strive for consistency, but the belief that you can beat those top teams is a big thing.
We then went to the Champions Challenge, which was a bit disappointing. We only lost one game - in a shootout - but we continued to learn and make strides as a team.
I reckon the confidence and gradual climb has a bit of a snowball effect.
We have more belief in ourselves in those tough games and tough situations and now we can go back to gutsy performances, like that one against Spain, for inspiration.
Colin's had a big effect too. He's brought a simplicity to what we do and in pressure situations we know we can go back to that, we can rely on it.
There's something about the culture in this side too. We've always had a good culture - don't get me wrong - but comparing past teams with this one, there's just that little something else and we're in a really good place.
I think there's still plenty of room for improvement in our play, but we're getting there and at the World Cup this side has a chance to do something no other New Zealand men's hockey side has ever done. Seventh is the best a Kiwi men's side has ever finished and we have the players and the ability to do better than that.
We had a good start, but we need to carry on. It's important that we focus on the next game and not get ahead of ourselves. It will take a huge effort but hopefully we can make that next step in our development and knock on the door of the big boys, Germany and Holland, then we might be able to do something really special.
That's where all the pressure lies, against Germany tomorrow night and against the Netherlands on Wednesday, but it lies with them. Everyone expects them to win. We'll definitely be up for those games.
Dean Couzins is captain of the Black Sticks.
- The Press
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