Ranchi (Jharkhand): Taking part in the women’s FIH Hockey Olympic Qualifiers here at Ranchi is like leaping into the unknown for Team New Zealand as they have not travelled a lot since the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic and have very little match practice going into the big event.
The Black Sticks women had a short camp in the United States and played two Test matches against the USA and also a few matches against Malaysia before turning up at Ranchi. With the strict travel restrictions imposed by their government in 2020 and 2021, the team could not play many outings as they were forced to skip the Pro League. And when they played in the Tokyo Olympics, they ran into World No.1 and eventual gold medallist the Netherlands in the quarterfinals and bowed out early.
The lack of matches resulted in their rankings plummeting and they are now ranked ninth in the World. They were on a high between 2012 and 2016, finishing fourth in successive Olympic Games.
However, despite the hurdles, Team New Zealand is confident of its performance in the FIH Olympic Qualifiers in Ranchi and thinks they will surely clinch their ticket to the Paris Olympics.
“I think obviously we play hockey to play in these big moments, so I think it’s as much as we know, it’s a challenge. It’s actually a really exciting opportunity to have such good matches and obviously going to the Olympic Games is no small feat and anybody that gets the Olympic Games absolutely earns it and deserves it. So that’s something we certainly want to do and we know we’ll have to earn it, earn the right to be there,” said the team’s co-captain Olivia Merry during a pre-event press conference on Friday.
New Zealand will open their campaign in Ranchi with a clash with Italy on Saturday and co-captain Megan Hull said their opponents are an unknown quantity for them and therefore they are expecting a tough fight on Saturday.
“Yeah, obviously, (Italy is) actually a little bit of an unknown for us, but we know that they’re going to be a really strong side, full of speed and full of power. So we certainly will need to bring our best game out there. We know it’ll be a fierce match, but I think we’ve had really good preparation leading into this match. So from the first whistle we’ll be ready to go,” said Megan.
“I think they are a strong and really fast side. I know they’ve spent a lot of time together and had a few training camps over the last couple of years. So yeah, we’ll obviously know a few things about them. But at the same time, a lot of it is about focusing on ourselves and making sure we’re all doing our jobs individually and as a collective. So when we go out there, we know our roles really well and focus on what we can bring to the pitch,” she added.
Asked about the strong group they are in and the challenge of playing India in India, Olivia said they are taking it match by match and will be focusing on Italy first.
“Yeah, as a group, we’re just taking it game by game. So as Megan said, you know we’ve got Italy 1st and then we’ll focus on India, but we’re in a pretty strong pool. So our aim is definitely to finish top of the pool. So yeah, playing India will be a big match-up. But yeah, like I said, we do have to take on Italy first,” said Olivia.
One thing that the New Zealand team is not bothered by a lot is the weather, as it is like New Zealand summer at the moment and the fast pitch at the Marang Gomke Jaipal Singh Astro Turf Hockey Stadium, as they have similar pitches back home.
“The pitch is fantastic. When I get some wood on it, it’s a fast pitch and in New Zealand, we have lots of fast pitches so we’re really excited about getting out there. The weather’s been really good, much like New Zealand summer at the moment, so we’re enjoying that And yeah, we’re pretty, pretty excited to get going tomorrow night,” said Megan.
She said they are not feeling the pressure of facing strong opponents in the league phase.
“I think obviously we play hockey to play in these big moments, so I think it’s as much as we know, it’s a challenge. It’s actually a really exciting opportunity to have such good matches and obviously going to the Olympic Games is no small feat and anybody that gets the Olympic Games absolutely earns it and deserves it. So that’s something we certainly want to do and we know we’ll have to earn it, earn the right to be there.
Talking about their preparations for the Olympic qualifiers, coach Phil Burrows said they toured the USA before Christmas and Malaysia just before coming here.
“Yeah, so we spent a bit of time in the USA in December, so we played five matches against the US, which is really beneficial for us. I thought it was a really good trip. Then we had a break over Christmas, as you do. Then we met again. The next time we played was in Malaysia and the heat was pretty tough for the girls. But again, really good preparation leading into here just to mix the trip up a bit. We didn’t want to be here too early. I just wanted to be nice and freshly into game one against Italy,” said Burrows.
He said it is difficult for New Zealand to travel and a lot to play matches against strong opponents because of the distance involved.
“It’s tough for us to play quality matches. We can’t just drive now and play Belgium and drive another hour and play Germany. It’s tough to get matches in New Zealand because it’s a long way to come and it’s very expensive to fly all that way to come to India. So, we appreciate that. And yes, it is difficult for us to get matches, but we just have to do what we can to prepare the best and we think we have done that,” said the New Zealand chief coach.
He said besides New Zealand, India, Germany and Japan look good bets to reach the semifinals of the Olympic qualifiers in Ranchi.
12 pm: Germany v Chile
2:30 pm: Japan v Czech Republic
5:00 pm: New Zealand v Italy
7:30 pm: India v United States