Black Sticks coach forced to inject new blood
New coach, new Olympic Games cycle and new blood - the New Zealand men's hockey team's road to Rio 2016 starts with the Champions Trophy in Melbourne tomorrow, a tournament in which developing the next generation of Black Sticks is a prime consideration.
Hockey New Zealand is not alone in embarking on a rebuilding phase after London 2012, two-time Olympic champions Germany - the Black Sticks' first opponents - are also remodelling, as are fellow pool rivals England.
But New Zealand face the added challenge of launching their four-year programme towards Brazil with a new coach - Australian Colin Batch - with almost 900 caps' worth of experience unavailable, either on a short-term or potentially permanent basis.
Batch, an assistant coach of the Kookaburras when they won gold at Athens and bronze in Beijing, relocated from his previous role with Belgium only a month ago so it has been a steep learning curve.
Shane McLeod's successor admits he knows more about the Belgian roster than his own because several New Zealand stalwarts, who he scouted and plotted against, are not included in the 18-man squad.
Batch's maiden tournament with world No 6-ranked Kiwis unfolds without Ryan Archibald. The 250-plus-cap midfielder is focusing on next month's World Series Hockey League in India while he ponders his international future.
Brad Shaw, Kyle Pontifex (parenthood), Richard Petherick (injury), Andy Hayward (work commitments) and Blair Hilton (rest) are also missing from the squad that finished a disappointing ninth in London, so Batch has been forced to introduce new blood.
The roster includes eight players who did not feature at the Olympics and three new faces: striker Jacob Smith, defender Alex Shaw and goalkeeper Devon Manchester.
Two-cap forward Kane Russell also joined the squad as an injury replacement for Hugo Inglis, who broke a thumb during a practice match on Monday.
Batch, who led Belgium to fifth place in London, said the eight-nation tournament in his home town was as an ideal learning experience for him, and prospective Olympians.
"I know the main players who have been part of the New Zealand structure for the last five or six years. We don't have all of them in this team so I'm learning more about the next group, the players we need to expose and give an opportunity to.
"It's also a good time for the guys who have been in the team for a while to really establish themselves and take a leadership role."
Goalkeeper is one position up for grabs as 156-game veteran Pontifex awaits the birth of his child; Batch was hopeful he would return to the fold but understood how priorities changed.
Given his brief association with the team, Batch said its playing style would not be overhauled during the tournament but he believed it was not resistant to change.
"I've been really encouraged by what I've seen so far, the players are very responsive, the attitude is really good," he said.
New Zealand face an ominous start against a German side marshalled by midfield general Moritz Fuerste but should then face an easier assignment against India on Sunday. Their final pool match is against England on Tuesday then they face Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands or Pakistan in a quarterfinal two days later, before the medal rounds.