New Zealand endured a day of mixed fortunes in the FIH Pro League on Friday (8 February) as the Black Sticks played host to the national teams of Great Britain in Christchurch.
Ace striker Sam Ward became the first player to register a hat-trick in the FIH Pro League as Great Britain’s men stormed to a 6-2 victory over the home favourites, while Olivia Merry matched Ward’s feat by scoring three times for the Black Sticks women who recorded a fine 5-1 triumph over Great Britain’s women, the reigning Olympic champions.
The opening match of the day at the Nga Puna Wai Hockey Stadium in Christchurch – a city hosting their first international hockey match in eight years – featured the New Zealand (FIH World Ranking: 8) and Great Britain (WR:7) men’s teams in action.
A sell-out crowd at the sparkling new facility were treated to three goals in the first half, however none went the way of the host nation as the visitors from Europe established a commanding 3-0 lead at half time.
All three goals arrived in the second quarter, with Sam Ward, Phil Roper and Adam Dixon – recently named as the new Great Britain captain by Head Coach Danny Kerry – finding the target with well executed penalty corner routines.
While the Black Sticks had overturned deficits in their two previous FIH Pro League matches, fighting back from 0-3 and 2-4 against Netherlands and Belgium respectively, their chances of producing a comeback in this meeting were considerably reduced when Ward netted his second from close range early in the third quarter.
Ward was heavily involved in Great Britain’s fifth goal, showing excellent 3D skills before providing the simplest of finishes for Player of the Match Phil Roper to score his second.
Just as it seemed the result was all but settled, strikes from Nic Woods, on his 100th senior international appearance, and Hugo Inglis took the score to 5-2 and gave the hosts optimism going into the final quarter.
However, any potential momentum gathered was brought to a grinding halt when Sam Ward completed his hat-trick with a tap-in, giving Great Britain a fine 6-2 victory on the road. The result leaves GB’s men sitting top of the FIH Pro League standings thanks to a 100 percent win record, adding to last month’s victory over Spain in Valencia.
“We are obviously delighted, it has been a long week with lots of training sessions and getting over a bit of jet-lag, but it is nice to come here and pick up those points”, said Great Britain captain Adam Dixon. “It’s pretty difficult to come away on the road, and to get this Pro League campaign underway with two victories is all that we could ask for, really.”
New Zealand captain Blair Tarrant’s assessment of the match was to the point, saying: “It’s extremely disappointing in front of a good home crowd. It wasn’t good enough from us today.”
The women’s fixture between New Zealand (WR:6) and Great Britain (WR:2) was notable for numerous reasons, with Head Coach Mark Hager taking charge of GB for the first time since recently ending a hugely successful ten-year stint as Head Coach of the Black Sticks women.
New Zealand came into the match on the back of two defeats, so were determined to bounce back against a Great Britain team that were making their FIH Pro League debut and had beaten them in the semi-finals of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games en-route to winning gold.
In terms of possession and shots, Great Britain dominated the opening two quarters but found themselves trailing 2-1 to the host nation, who suffered a late withdrawal from star midfielder and FIH Player of the Year 2018 nominee Stacey Michelsen through injury.
Olivia Merry’s fifth minute strike gave the Black Sticks a perfect start, getting the vital touch on a fine pass from Kelsey Smith before Giselle Ansley restored parity with a penalty stroke before the end of the first quarter.
Ella Gunson marked her 199th appearance for New Zealand with a well-taken penalty corner in the second quarter, giving the Black Sticks a 2-1 advantage over the Olympic champions at half time.
It got even better for the Black Sticks after the break, with Olivia Merry scoring two stunning strikes – one from open play, one from a penalty corner – to become the first player to score a hat-trick in the women’s FIH Pro League to established a commanding 4-1 lead.
A fifth goal arrived in the final minutes of the contest, with Amy Robinson producing a superb deflection to chip the goalkeeper and give New Zealand their first win of the competition.
“The goal-scoring has been a massive focus in the past couple of weeks as we obviously haven’t been putting the goals in the back of the net, so it was pretty pleasing to come out here today and do that”, said Player of the Match Olivia Merry. “It’s pleasing, but there is still a lot of work to be done.”
Great Britain captain Hollie Pearne-Webb said: “We need to look at what we need to improve on for our next game [against Australia on 16 February], so that is a big focus. We are kind of starting afresh at the moment, so this is our baseline. The only way is up, hopefully.”
The FIH Pro League action continues this weekend with a trio of matches taking place in the Tasmanian city of Hobart, Australia. Australia’s women take on China on Saturday 9 February, with the men’s and women’s teams in action on Sunday 10 February against the national teams of Germany.