New Zealand surprised at the Argentina FIH Champions Trophy by drawing 2-2 with host Argentina.
By Michael Burgess
The 2012 Champions Trophy will have a different format to previous editions, one that has few fans among the Black Sticks. It resembles something that the Monty Python team might have come up with if asked to design a sporting tournament.
Take eight teams. Play 12 group matches. Then put the same eight teams into quarter-finals.
Only time will tell but Black Sticks coach Mark Hager certainly has reservations about the new format for the tournament, which starts today in Rosario.
His main beef is that the three group games could essentially count for nothing under the structure introduced by the FIH.
"I'm not a big fan," admits Hager, "I thought the previous system worked well, as we saw last year in both the men's and women's [Champions Trophies]. I don't think this format rewards consistency; a lot comes down to one performance on the day."
The eight competing teams are divided into two groups of four. Each country plays the other once but nobody is knocked out come the end of group play - it is almost the ultimate in political correctness.
They move straight into a quarter-final phase with the Pool A winners playing the fourth side in Pool B, second (A) playing third (B), third (A) plays second (B) and fourth (A) plays first (B).
There have been weird scenarios before - the ICC came up with a doozy at the last two cricket World Cups, taking weeks to eliminate just a few teams. The A-League and the NHL have play-off systems which allow more than half of the teams in the league to progress - but having every team progress to the knockout rounds takes the biscuit.
"It's a bit weird," says captain Kayla Sharland, "because you don't need to be consistent. It's a pretty crazy format but we have seen it before; They have used it at the Champions Challenge and sometimes there a team has lost all three pool games but then gone on to win the tournament. I don't think it is ideal."
Obviously there is a theoretical advantage in topping the pool but only in that you get to play a weaker team; there is no second life for the top qualifier or any other advantage.
Still, given their lead-in form, maybe the format is a blessing in disguise for the New Zealand side. Under the previous system, as seen at the Champions Trophy in Amsterdam last year, teams would have to finish in the top two to progress, otherwise they would be cast aside into the unwanted ground of the fifth-eighth play-offs. Now, the Black Sticks will be in a quarter-final regardless of their group form, though the team and coach will be counting on some confidence-boosting results.
Hager says one of the priorities is to try and avoid the formidable Dutch side, currently ranked No1 in the world and likely to top Pool A.
"We back ourselves against any other team in the world and always will but obviously Holland would be a tough side to meet in the quarter-finals."
As well as Holland, Pool A features Great Britain (ranked fourth in the world), China (fifth) and Japan (ninth).
The Blacks Sticks' Pool B is slightly stronger, with Argentina (second), Germany (third), New Zealand (sixth) and South Korea (eighth) and has three of the top four (New Zealand, Argentina and Korea) from the 2011 Champions Trophy.
The New Zealand Herald