Hockey men right in the mix
It’s worth only a whisper just now, but the New Zealand men’s hockey team looks good enough to be among the medals at next year’s London Olympics.
Dean Couzins and his team aren’t better than other leading combinations, but they’re right in the mix. Their fourth-place finish at the Champions Trophy tournament in Auckland at the weekend should not be dismissed lightly.
Not only did New Zealand thrash Korea 6- 1, but they did well to snatch a 3-all draw with The Netherlands early in the tournament. The Netherlands led 3-0, but New Zealand doggedly clawed their way back.
In the other pool match, New Zealand were pipped 2- 1 by Germany. They lost 3-2 to Spain in post- section play and went down 2- 1 to world champions Australia in a semifinal that could have gone either way.
In the bronze medal playoff New Zealand fought The Netherlands goal for goal before going down 5-3.
The New Zealanders were never outclassed, and they scored 16 goals in six matches.
The Champions Trophy is for the elite of world men’s hockey and New Zealand, on the occasions when they have been invited to play, have struggled. They did finish fourth in 1978, but that was in a five-team competition. This time they looked as good as any team, which bodes well for the Olympics.
There have been two New Zealand men’s hockey teams of particular note. In 1956, New Zeal and, captained by Jack Tynan, one of the game’s greats, acquitted themselves well on their Olympic debut. Showing no first- game nerves, they led the highly-rated German team 3-0 before going down 5-4.
In other pool matches, New Zealand lost 5-1 to eventual silver medallists Pakistan, and beat Belgium 3-0.
In post-section play New Zealand set an Olympic record in smashing Singapore 13-0, with centre forward Guy Mcgregor slotting six goals. There followed another 1-0 loss to Australia and another win over Belgium, which secured sixth place overall, a commendable first-up performance.
The high point in New Zealand hockey history was the Olympic gold medal performance in Montreal in 1976, the first time the tournament was played on an artificial surface.
New Zealand fielded a vastly experienced team that year, many of the players coached by Canterbury hockey wizard Cyril Walter.
The New Zealanders survived a tough draw and two extra-time matches to reach the final, where they beat Australia 1-0, courtesy of a goal by captain Tony Ineson.
The final is often recalled because Wellington goalie Trevor Manning stopped a sizzling shot with his knee 13 minutes from time. His kneecap was broken, but he bravely helped the New Zealanders to their triumph.
Expecting the current team to reach those dizzy heights might be a bit much. But there’s no denying how experienced they are. Couzins ( 237), Ryan Archibald (251), Blair Hopping (240) and Phil Burrows (262) have more than 200 test caps and another seven players have topped the century mark. No wonder they looked composed under pressure.
The New Zealanders, coached by Shane Mcleod, won a bronze medal at the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games, beating England in a penalty shootout in the deciding match. They looked better still in Auckland. If they can go up another notch by London, anything’s possible.