Photo Credits : Getty Images

The Netherlands men and women both made winning starts to their respective FIH Pro League campaigns on Sunday (27 January), earning victories over hosts New Zealand at the North Harbour Hockey Stadium in Auckland.

The Netherlands men survived an astonishing New Zealand fight-back before emerging 4-3 winners, while a solitary goal from Maartje Krekelaar proved to be just enough as the Dutch women claimed a narrow 1-0 triumph over a resilient Black Sticks side.

The Netherlands (World Ranking: 3) men produced a scintillating display of attacking hockey in the opening quarter of their meeting against the Black Sticks men (WR:8), with the European champions and World Cup silver medallists surging into a 3-0 lead to leave the home crowd stunned.

Thierry Brinkman pounced from close range to squeeze the ball between the legs of New Zealand shot-stopper George Enersen before Jonas de Geus crashed a powerful backhand effort against backboard to double the advantage. Jip Janssen’s penalty corner drag-flick left the Black Sticks with a mountain to climb, but it was a challenge that they would prove capable of rising to.

Hugo Inglis reduced the deficit with a fine solo goal one minute into the second period, weaving his way through the Dutch defence before lifting the ball over the onrushing Sam van der Ven to give his team a foothold in the match.

It was a goal that raised the spirits of the fans in the North Harbour Hockey Stadium, but there was more to come. The Black Sticks found the net twice in the final three minutes of the period, with Inglis claiming his second before Kane Russell’s ferocious, low penalty corner drag-flick levelled the contest at 3-3 and brought a fascinating first half to an end.

While the third quarter was evenly contested, it was the Netherlands who produced what proved to be the decisive moment in the match. Seconds after defending a Dutch penalty corner, the Black Sticks let their concentration levels slip and were duly punished.

A quick free-hit released Player of the Match Thierry Brinkman, who unleashed a stunning backhand strike high into the New Zealand net from a tight angle to put the Netherlands back in front at 4-3.

While Brinkman’s goal proved to be the winner, the final quarter was both dramatic and entertaining. A clash between Mackenzie Wilcox and de Geus saw both players given ten-minute yellow card suspensions, while goalkeepers Enersen and Van der Ven both produced fine saves to deny efforts from Jeroen Hertzberger and Marcus Child before the end.

“It was a really tough game for us”, said Netherlands captain Billy Bakker after the match. “With the crowd and New Zealand playing on their home ground, it is always difficult. We wanted to win today and we achieved that so we are very happy for the first game.”

New Zealand captain Blair Tarrant said: “It was really good from our boys to come back into the game after being down 3-0, but obviously not the result we wanted. I just want to say a big thanks to the crowd for coming out today. It was nice to play the Dutch, who are one of the best teams in the world, on our home pitch.”

The match between the New Zealand and Netherlands women’s teams was also a close one, with the sixth ranked Black Sticks holding their own against the World and European champions for long periods of the contest.

With the defences of both nations excelling, clear goal-scoring opportunities were kept to a minimum. The top-ranked Netherlands had a high penalty corner strike correctly ruled out early in the game, while Olivia Merry’s speculative backhand effort rattled the side of the Netherlands goal in the second quarter before Dutch striker Frederique Matla fired over the crossbar just before half time.

Dutch goalkeeper Josine Koning made an important save midway through the third quarter before her team finally broke the deadlock thanks to Maartje Krekelaar, who slipped the ball past New Zealand goalkeeper Grace O’Hanlon from close range in the 38th minute.

New Zealand thought they had found an equaliser early in the fourth quarter, but Brooke Neal’s penalty corner was ruled out by the video umpire who spotted an obstruction just as Neal fired towards goal. Black Sticks captain Stacey Michelsen became an influential figure in the latter stages, but despite her brilliance the leveller could not be found as the Dutch battled to a hard-earned away victory.

“We really enjoyed it, although it was a tough one”, said Netherlands captain Eva de Goede after the match. “That is a good start for us, a 1-0 win, so I think if you win then it is a good one. The atmosphere was amazing and we really enjoyed playing here.”

Black Sticks captain Stacey Michelsen said: “I think it was a really good fight. We obviously knew playing the Dutch in game one was a huge challenge, but it was one we were excited to have and it was amazing to play in front of a really good crowd here today. We are really looking forward to improving as the Pro League goes on.”