By Michael Brown
THERE’S something about playing Korea that agrees with the New Zealand men's hockey side and, despite playing poorly when the two teams met in Auckland today, they won 4-2 in the first of five Tests.
Korea are ranked sixth in world hockey, one place above New Zealand, but were beaten 6-1 the last time the two sides met at last year's Champions trophy.
Although they played infinitely better than the hosts today and dominated almost every facet, a combination of good goalkeeping from Kyle Pontifex, poor finishing and bad luck saw them edged.
They led 2-1 with eight minutes remaining but conceded three quick goals, one a piece of individual brilliance from striker Simon Child, as the Black Sticks finished strongly.
"I don't know how we won that," New Zealand coach Shane McLeod admitted. "It was a little bit of individual class and Simon [Child] did a couple of things at key moments that gave us the opportunity to be in the game let alone win the game. I don't think we played well."
They were sloppy in possession, constantly giving the ball away and often in bad areas, and struggled to build any pressure. In contrast, Korea were quick on the break and found joy dribbling through the middle of the park.
For McLeod, however, this series is not about results and he rested eight players from the squad who finished fourth at last year's Champions Trophy. The likes of Ryan Archibald, Blair Hopping, Dean Couzins, Phil Burrows and Nick Wilson have been given the weekend off - the two sides meet again tomorrow - as McLeod casts his eye over a number of fringe players.
The coach has locked in nine of the 16 players he will take to the Olympics and has challenged the remainder in the extended 27-man squad to force their way into the team for London. In contrast, Korea are using the series as a buildup to their Olympic qualifiers and have assembled a strong squad.
The visitors took the lead through a 10th-minute penalty corner to Jong Hyun Jang but couldn't add to their tally in the first half. Hugo Inglis equalised in the 42nd minute when Child delivered a pin-point pass to an unmarked Inglis in the circle but Hyuon Woo Nam restored Korea's lead 10 minutes later from another penalty corner.
Child provided the highlight of the match with a surging run into the circle and reverse drive that found the net in the 62nd minute.
Korea enjoyed six penalty corners before New Zealand were awarded their first four minutes from time. Defender Richard Petherick converted and Kane Russell, on debut, scored another after the final hooter to give the score a flattering look.
"Korea are a tricky side but we seem to have their number," McLeod said. "Even when we play poorly, and we didn't play well today, they struggle to beat us. We have had games where they have absolutely hammered us on all the stats and we've won 2-1. There's something about the way we play and they play that suits us."
The New Zealand Herald