I could go on and on about these guys, so it could be a long one. All my team-mates assure me they are reading this blog on the loo, so I'm sure their families and/or work-mates will be thinking they have some kind of serious bowel complaint after this post.
Australia are our neighbours across the Tasman Sea, and NZ has been playing them since forever. For me as a young developing player, these were the guys we played at Juniors level, Age-groups, and every year that wasn't a worlds year in Trans-Tasman champs and Southern Hemisphere Championships. We played them far more than anyone else.
And, what a history. The guys who won everything forever, who every other country was either trying to catch or copy for decades.
There is floating around a table of all the past winners at worlds... I can't find it today! But, from my memory, it goes a bit like this....
1980 - first Worlds, Nederlands won it.
1986 - Canada won it, famously changing styles and gameplay
1998 - France won.
Every other year up to 2004, Australia won? Something crazy like that.
The worlds in Wellington in 1992 where I first saw uwh played? Aussie won the final 10-1 against NZ. (the NZ goal was a breakaway length of the pool by local legend Shane Clegg, who had a hand in coaching me when I was wee and was one of the most likeable stoners you could ever wish to meet.)
They seemed to have a never-ending generation of amazing players. I've already talked about the Aussie switch etc in previous posts too, so I won't go over that again, but they were doing it before anyone else.
Anyway, before I get too depressed to continue. When Andrew Carr took over coaching the NZ mens team in 2001, he introduced a new formation that he had been using in schools and nz junior teams for a few years... 2-3-1. I remember him giving us a brief history of his experience with this, and to summarize, he said it had been developed in an attempt to beat the Australian style, the expansive swinging switching style that opens up the whole pool. 2-3-1 had been an effort to contain the puck on the wall and drive those Aussies back, used earlier when Andrew had been a NZ player himself. We were now going to have another shot at it, and the style we used in 2001 then morphed and grew through a few phases into the style we use today, and also spread across most of NZ until it is almost exclusively the only formation played in the country. Who knew right?
Isolate half-back, drive wall channels, possibly win 1-0. Or, puck gets out into Aussie backline = Death, destruction and Aussie win 7-0
Annoyingly, the Aussies are actually good at the wall game too when they are forced into it, they just don't like it. So limiting them to a wall game won't even give you a good chance of winning, just maybe a better chance than if you let them swim round you.
So, the point of this really is... you could argue that the whole current NZ way of playing is descended directly from a style that was exclusively intended to beat the Australian style. That's a compliment I think, isn't it? We finally beat them in 2004, with a style that had evolved a lot already since 2001, and was very honestly a bit boring and pretty conservative. We played the wall channel, and we attacked the space only when we had pressured enough to make some nice big holes to go through, generally. The final did break into a crazy 10 minute section of open helter-skelter play in the second half all around the pool, but that was mostly because we were all buggered rather than a conscious effort to use space.
Sidetracking slightly, of course I'm not saying that back then we discounted any other team but Australia. When you only play other teams at worlds and you play Aussie every single year, you end up plotting on how to beat the team that's right in front of you... and that's the gameplan you begin with when you face everyone else as well.
South Africa vs Australia in the Round robin in 2004 basically showed us how to beat that Aussie team, and this was probably the first time we had got something really solid from video analysis, so it was a bit of a landmark for us. Basically, Aussie beat us 1-0 in the RR. Beat everyone else I think, but SA beat them 9-5. 9 goals! Against the defending champs, stacked full of multi-golds winners, a decent handful of the best players ever to play uwh in that team, and SA put 9 goals on them but didn't end up dominating any other team to the same degree....
How incredible, really. So, after we made it past France in the Semi we had basically an evening to look at all Aussies games and try to find some cracks, and there was that scoreline, 9-5. The Aussies did have someone have some ear problems in the game I vaguely remember, maybe a young Yongy? But one injury couldn't account for the result.
In short, Grant Russell from SA had a huge impact on that RR game. (he was in the sinbin 12 minutes in the game we played against them, so didn't have much opportunity to do the same) I think he was playing goalie, perhaps center, definitely in the middle, but he had a really nice long low pass and as a lefty he was getting into spaces they weren't used to and throwing long low passes straight up the pool past the Aussie backline, hitting his forwards who were getting on the end of those passes and they were getting breakaways and doing massive damage. Every time he held the puck until he found a nice window and threw a deep straight pass, the Aussie backline was put out of balance and we realised that no-one usually threw those passes, people came up to the aussie backs and usually crapped themselves, either threw on angles where the passes landed in front of the other aussie backs to swim onto but more likely, pulled the puck back to turn around and the aussie forwards backtackled them on the other side. It looked like the main source of possession for the Aussies was actually backtackling, and the backs were just hitting the right positions and waving their stick, scaring the opposition into turning. Not every time of course but high %s. He got so many passes off because they weren't even going for him, they were holding their ground and trying to make him turn into their forwards.
So, basically what Grant was doing was keeping the puck behind the Aussie backs and that was shutting their forwards out of the game. It's easier said than done to do that, but we took a huge amount of confidence in seeing someone pull it off and we tried to do it ourselves in the final, and that combined with our structured approach allowed us to nullify a lot of the usual game they played.
Well, that was then. That was 14 years ago! Today, if you focus on tactics for only one team there are at least 6 more that will bite you on the bum.
The Aussies like to use the channel too, but they do it a bit differently.
They hate the wall. They hate it so much. They might use it for a couple of minutes to close up a game, or wait until they get a guy back from the sin-bin, sure they're not dumb. But generally, trying to play on the wall is not the Aussie way.
I first went over to Oz in.... oh dear. 2003 or 2004? I had to pretend I was living in Queensland in Kellys spare room and use his address on the membership forms to squirm my way into the Queensland team... but I'm sure no-one really would have been bothered. Aussie nationals is an amazing competition, I still think it's the closest you can get to playing at a Worlds in terms of structure of the competition and rhythm of games. I had the luck to play with a few Aussies of my generation in Colombia in 2010, and I've been back to Aussie nationals a couple more times too. Over the last few years Aussie teams have been starting to come over the ditch and attend some of our comps here in NZ, which is really nice and always adds a great flavour to the comps.
So anyway, we got to play them in Quebec! Again we were in the same group, like 2016 in SA. However, they had then gone on to win that comp while we had bombed out in the Quarters.... yep, still stings.
We did have a couple of games of footage to watch of them at this stage, but that's the thing about these guys... they have probably changed their style of play the least of any team in the world since I ever started playing them, and from well before if footage I've seen is any guide. Every other team has chopped and changed trying to make adjustments while they have kept on refining the game they like to play. They just trust their gameplan 1000% and go out and do it and they are always chockfull of quality players who all have very very strong basic skillsets... flat bodies on turns, hard and fast swimmers, chase in support, follow their passes, they just do all the basics right. One of my favourite aussie players is Rees Quilford, who will tell you he only needs 3 skills... swerve, curl, and pass. He also has bulletproof tackles, knockdowns and can do everything else as well, but I don't like to argue with him. I get his point anyway, which is good basics gets you a long way.
There's a reason they haven't changed too much either... Oz is huge. It's a massive $$$ to get their players together to have a camp, and when you compare it to Holland, France, NZ, GB? All those countries can get their players together on a weekend and develop new approaches pretty easily and cheaply, so the scope for development is far higher. Some of those countries have had some very dramatic shifts in formation and gamestyle over the years, accordingly... A team as spread out as Aussie is, it's a lot more tricky.
Now having said they don't often change much... well of course we watched their games. You have to do all you can against every opposition and there are things to pick up even with a team you think you might know well.
For example, for years and years they did this on attacking Freepucks....
They set a hanging fwd line and bombed it to the middle guy then drove. Just using it to restart running play really. Some little variations on the goalbin, one fwd might sit up on the corner of the goal, but this was the standard setplay for a long time. They blew my mind one year when they passed it to the half and then he threw the same pass to the center-forward, but this has been the play forever (that everyone copies, the turks, GB, and us too recently.)
Of late they have been doing a slight variation, just to prove me wrong.
The pass sometimes goes up alongside the hanging line and they often manage to get the fwd on that side a bit of a swim around the edge of the opposition formation. They aren't trying to contain and drive straight anymore, but trying to spit it out the side and get someone around the outside.
Anyway, so how did the game go? It was a great one for us in the end.
We played at lunchtime and both teams would play again later that evening.
So right from the start, here's something to contrast some of our earlier games
Aus in possession (white) is a back, and his forward is waiting on the other side of the opposing back, ahead of him waiting for the pass. We would almost never see that in games against Arg or Col earlier in the comp. We do this too, so in this respect it's a lot more familiar to play against fwdlines that operate this way.
In the first few minutes we got a couple of Adv pucks in front of their bin, and the second one we got the puck in underneath them and converted the goal. Very standard free puck, we were doing a copy-cat of their own hanging forward line approach and the pass went through.
After a bit of back and forth, Aus had a break towards our bin and ended up obstructing, and had a guy binned for a minute. This play ended up being pretty pivotal in the game. Aus had their guy swimming to the sinbin, and because it was in front of our subs bench it was very fast for us to sub a couple of guys. But, the Aussies had a lot of subs, in particular the 2 fwd players who would be playing the front 2 in their 2-3 while they were a man down. (like most teams, Aussie drops a fwd when playing with 5)
This meant we started the play with 6 and the nearest Aussie fwd wasn't even at the 3m line, and he was therefore easily beaten with a pass. The other fwd tracked across from the subs bench but couldn't affect the play and we had a 6 on 3 against the Aus backline, and the guys did very well to trap the drive and roll it to the goal.
So we were 2-0 up. Not long after there's a nice snippet of a classic Aussie change of direction from Tommy...
Kinda notably, Aus then had a free in their D left corner and did a flat switch to their own subs bench, Gav took the puck and Andrew was the forward on that side for us. This repeated a few times later in the game which ended up being pretty relevant. When a team switches in front of you the first time they might catch you by surprise.... 2nd or 3rd time, bit harder to pull off.
Here's a nice snippet of Andre pulling off a nice fade into the middle
For interest, you can see (a bit blurrily) in this clip how Andre is using monkey grip in his turn, with his thumb up over his stick to get that snappy curl with control. He's looking over his own elbow well before the puck is coming around too, which is awesome to see if you're a coach.
Pixely monkey-grip. This is why hooks aren't big in NZ.
Not long after, a refs call stops the game and Rob flicks the puck as everyone starts to go up... puck hits an Aussie fin(foot?) and ref overides the call and Rob is binned, a first! Binning for a pass after the play is stopped, that is. He's been in the bin before.
A minute later I went to the bin too for obstruction and Aussie had a good opportunity to get a bit of 6 on 4 action. Nick ran it straight off the free puck with his trademark Choo choo train plume of bubbles...
It's a good thing his lungs are so big, because he blows out more than mine can hold every time he swims in to belt someone.
We had a minute or so to hold out until halftime and Rob was back in not long before that, and we did manage to hold out. We had a few things to sort out when down to 5 after the COL game and we had put a big emphasis on improving it, and it really showed in this game, for example here.
Jesse and Andre, clubmates from Phoenix, in tandem here. Jesse lays back to Andre and then rolls on around him to become the guy who backs him up. This is great covering. This is where Jesse being so damned enthusiastic about everything pays off bigtime.
So, we then had a few minutes with some sinbins each way, and both teams were struggling to get the obstruction interpretation just right. We got some better clarity on exactly how the refs were ruling it after the game, but hindsights a lovely thing.
Jesse went to the bin and Jamie from Aus was just about to re-enter the water, and Gav notices this, and goes wide to try to connect as Jamie comes in fresh, you can see him plonk down from the wall at the end of this gif...
But, things became very stop start with lots of fouls and neither team able to get a roll on, irrespective of who had what powerplay. (powerplay = 6 on 5/4 situation)
Minutes later, Jack is in the sinbin about to re-enter and Aus has a free in front of their subs bench on the 5m. Gav takes it again, Andrew is our fwd who is expecting this by now, and you can see in the vid Gav looking over to the sinbin seeing jack about to drop in, but the 2 Aus fwds, subbed in and ready this time, haven't twigged to this and are taken by surprise and take a looong time to get over, leaving the half isolated...
you can see Jack swimming in and down in this Gif but our fwd Andrew by this time has shut down the Aus half who is unable to connect to his forwards, our wing drives to the goal and Jeremy does a small-stick special to slide it in behind and Andrew manages to score it.
Aussie then put us under a heap of pressure for the rest of the game basically. They got a couple adv pucks working their way up the court and then about 5 in a row on our bin, the last couple with sinbins until we were down to 4 again when they had a goal disallowed. This is what Andrew Carr liked to call "squeaky bum time" ala Alex Ferguson. 3 goals are a lot but you can leak goals really quick when you are down to 4 players, so this was very tense. We held out and the game finished 5 on 5, really good experience for both teams moving on into the comp and especially for our younger guys. Great to have a lot of kickouts early so you can get used to it.
We had a good chat to the refs afterwards and the interpretation was that they were judging a defenders shoulders and head to be allowed to hold their ground, but he had to try to move his back/bum/legs out of the way of an attacking player trying to swim through. In past comps this had been the players bum/back/legs had every right to be there as long as he wasn't moving into the way, so an attacking player swimming into someones bum would be the one barging. All the pods of refs seemed to agree so our refs seemed to be ruling it correctly in terms of the general approach the refs group was taking, but it did seem like the interpretation might have morphed back to the older one by the time of the playoff games, so we had this kind of thing in the Quarters for instance...
In the playoffs, defender could leave his body where it is, and an attacker trying to go through gets the raw end of the deal. If a defender moves his bum out of the way you are good to go but if he holds his position you end up face-planting his backside and he is legal. The refs were consistent which is the most important thing, and I will do a post later on about how they were setup and the new systems they were using.
Next post, Game 5 BELGIUM