Young Black Sticks face formidable foe

SIMON PLUMB
Last updated 05:00 16/11/2012

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A baptism of fire awaits Colin Batch's new-look men's Black Sticks.

With a quartet of rookies in, five Olympians out, and limited training before next month's Champions Trophy, Batch's boys have to face London 2012 and Beijing 2008 Olympic gold medallists Germany straight out of the box at the key global tournament.

Taking the reins from Shane McLeod after the national men's hockey team flopped in London, finishing ninth after targeting an Olympic medal playoff, Australian Batch acknowledged new life needs breathing into the Black Sticks.

But, the well-decorated coach suggested not to expect instant improvement next month in Melbourne.

"We hope to do well at the Champions Trophy, we know it will be difficult but it's a good time to introduce younger players and a newer look to the team," Batch said.

"All teams, post-Olympic Games, go through that process. A few players were unlucky to miss Olympic selection and will now be part of the team going forward.

"We hope that we can improve and develop them and become a consistently performing top-four team.

"That will be difficult to do at the Champions Trophy because of the number of changes we've had, but also the lack of training we've had as a group.

"We have a number of players in Europe at the moment who will be returning next week. We have a short training period before we actually play our first game, against Germany, in Melbourne."

The Olympians missing from the Champions Trophy campaign leave big shoes to fill. Totalling well over 750 cumulative caps, the absentee list includes first-choice goalkeeper Kyle Pontifex, Ryan Archibald, Brad Shaw, Andy Hayward and Richard Petherick.

Batch said Petherick was injured, while the other four had declared themselves unavailable for either personal or work-related reasons. Batch said no players had retired from international play.

Coming in are three uncapped players in Jacob Smith, Alex Shaw and Devon Manchester - and goalkeeper Hamish McGregor, who has one cap.

In total Batch has selected eight "new" players from McLeod's Olympic squad.

"If you look at the team, it's a mixture of experience, three debutants and Hamish, who has played one international game," Batch said.

"It will be tough for us. It will be as much me getting used to the players as it will them getting used to me.

"We will learn a lot in Melbourne, I believe, and that will set us up for the next Olympic cycle.

"It's quite an exciting time for me to be involved with New Zealand hockey. I hope that it is also an exciting time for the players."

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This year's Champions Trophy also sees a slightly revised format. Two pools of four teams will see all sides qualify for quarterfinals, with pool placement dictating the knockout draw.

The Black Sticks, ranked sixth, play Germany (1) on December 1, India (11) on December 2 and England (4) on December 4.

The tournament concludes on December 9 and also features Australia (2), Netherlands (3), Belgium (8) and Pakistan (9).

Fairfax NZ

- Waikato Times

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