The New Zealanders bring a feel-good factor when they take to the astro-turf. A mish-mash of cultures that includes Indians and Maoris, the Kiwis are one of the most culturally diverse teams in the FIH Hockey World Cup.
On Friday, the motley bunch — many of whom are barely out of their teens — gave a commanding performance to defeat Doha Asian Games gold-medallists South Korea 2-1 and kept their hopes alive of making it to the semifinals from Pool A.
Though the Black Sticks have a couple of hurdles, including Germany, in their path, their showing on Friday would have surely been noticed by Germany.
The free-flowing Koreans were throttled from the word go and despite the Asian giants trying their best to breach the Kiwi defence, they were stonewalled by Ryan Archibald. The tall New Zealand defender's presence of mind and blocking tactics frustrated the Koreans and the perfect man marking by his teammates did not allow the usually well-organised Koreans to fall back on another strategy.
The Koreans have traditionally not been able to size up the Kiwis in their previous encounters, and Friday was no different. In the 1998 World Cup, New Zealand had won 3-1. The last meeting between the sides was at the 2008 Olympic Games, where the Kiwis again won by an identical margin. A bad Korean tackle outside their circle in the fourth minute resulted in the first penalty corner and Andrew Haywards accepted the offering with open hands, pushing the ball straight into the heart of the goal.
All along, the hard-working Priyesh Bhana, a player of Indian origin, kept the left flank alive. The tiny livewire, watched by his parents, was up all the time, easing past the defenders at every opportunity, while the midfield comprising Nicholas Wilson and Benjamin Collier ensured he was never short of passes. A 22nd minute gaffe by the Koreans — a shot from close range by Bhana touched the leg of a Korean defender — forced the umpire to point to the dreaded spot and Dean Couzins converted the stroke.
Moments before the final hooter, the Koreans pulled one back when Nam Yong Lee converted a penalty stroke. But the goal came too late in the day.
"We had studied the video footage of Korea and identified their strong points. We did not let a single counter-attack develop successfully and it was a conscious move,” said Kiwi goalkeeper Kyle Pontifax.
“We had let in too many goals in the previous games. It was something we were looking to avoid. Apart from the penalty stroke, we defended really well,” he added. “The Koreans can be fatal in the dying minutes. They did push hard and all credit to them but each player in our team had specific instructions. We are not being counted among the favorites right now but, I feel, if we carry our form from today, we can finish in the top-four,” said Pontifax.
Bhana said, “It was a crucial win for us as the Koreans can be a potent force. The whole idea was to strangle them in our defensive half. The team’s morale is definitely high even though our captain (Phillip Burrows) did not play today. We are happy with our underdog status and believe in creating upsets.”