Woman’s Hockey International – New Zealand (Black Sticks) versus United States

Saturday 25 October 2014 Clareville Hockey Complex Carterton

David Famularo

black sticks 2

Many years ago I interviewed the painter Philip Trusttum about an exhibition he was showing in Wellington, the theme of his abstracts being the game of tennis. Being early in my journey into the visual arts, I thought it was unusual to choose a sport, this seeming out of the ordinary as a subject for the visual arts. (These days I realise anything in the world can be a subject for the visual arts, as it is all about what the artist sees and how they  interpret a subject that interests them within the context of their own art practice.) I asked Trusttum why he did paintings about tennis. He more or less told me it was because he enjoyed playing the game. He wasn’t trying to sound profound – just stating the fact. Trusttum remains one of few New Zealand artist with a significant reputation to choose sport as his theme.

For a while now I’ve been noticing just how aesthetically interesting modern sport, has become. For the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Chinese seemed to create a palette for the entire event that I can best describe as a pastel version of that country’s traditional tastes in colours like red, blues, greens and turquoise. Contemporary sport carries huge cultural significance as well as being filled with drama but it has been left almost exclusively to sports photography to capture this. Occasionally it transcends its basic purpose of being a tool for reporting events to become a work of art, a very good New Zealand example being the photographs of Peter Bush.

Two things have stopped me following much sport over the past 25 years. One has been my focus and life going in other directions, and also the fact that almost all major sporting events are now rarely accessible for free on TV. Apart from the occasional club rugby or soccer game, I haven’t watched any live sport in years, in part (especially when it comes to rugby), because of the way it is so closely associated with alcoholic intoxication which never brings out the best qualities in spectators. This international was the first I had attended since the 1977 Lions Rugby Football team visited to New Zealand. Since then, many sports have changed dramatically, not the least being hockey which until Saturday, I still envisaged as slightly naff and unexciting.

Needless to say, my mind was blown! In its pace and intensity this game reminded me of the handball, and indoor volley ball I had enjoyed watching during the Olympics. And most significantly, it was totally cool as a visual spectacle, from the artificial turf, to the outfits, and especially the athletic beauty of the player’s bodies. I could completely understand how competitors at the original Olympics in Greece inspired artists to capture their physical beauty in sculpture.

Black Sticks 1

There’s a heavy sense of tension as the players warm up. This builds to a crescendo as the two teams line up for their respective national anthems, sung very nicely by Ryan Cole. Well, that’s the name I think I heard through the loud speakers, followed by “Are You Ready for a Good Time”, pumping out as they get ready for hit off. This particular match is being played in four 15 minute segments with very short first and third quarter breaks and a slightly longer half time one. It’s clear this series is designed to give both teams the opportunity to prepare for upcoming tournaments.

The hockey played over next hour is extremely fast, cool, sharp and quite dangerous. At one point the ball flies just millimetres past one player’s face, which makes me wonder if it wouldn’t be sensible for the players to be wearing some sort of protective headgear. The players are all extremely mentally focused and one can see why sports people playing at test level often say that matches seem to go by in seconds.

While playing, these players will be on a different mental level to everyday consciousness. Ironically, despite its long history which I assume has seen format and rules retained, hockey seems to be ideally suited as a modern sports spectacle. One thing that hasn’t changed at hockey matches is the relative pleasantness of hockey supporters, creating a really relaxed and non-threatening environment. A few of the “hockey mums” throw out pieces of advice to the players that would be more suited to give to ten year-olds. I equate this with members of the audience at rock concerts yelling out requests to the band, with the expectation they are going to stop mid-number and say, “Oh wait, someone wants us to play this other song.”

I’m slightly surprised at how positive and congratulatory the spectators, and especially the players are, when they manage to achieve a penalty in front of the other team’s goal. I tend to think that should be saved for actually scoring. It’s not often the penalty is translated into a point in this game at least. I’m quite surprised anyone scores a goal at all, given how crowded the field seems to be when either team gets close to their opposition’s net.

On the day, New Zealand has vastly more opportunities and shots at goal than the US but doesn’t seem to be able close the deal. It seems split second timing is needed, as is illustrated when New Zealand finally does score in the third quarter, the ball being across the line before I’ve even registered a chance is on. New Zealand manages to retain the lead till the end, still slightly dominant but never assured of a win until the final whistle.

As this is a training series for both teams, there is a penalty shootout anyway, New Zealand winning that 3-2. I’m surprised that the shooters miss any at all, given that they have such a dominant advantage in being allowed to dribble around the goalie to get their shot in. There’s not much glamour in it for the two goalies who don’t seem to even have been given a team uniform to wear.

The game over, the Americans take much longer to “unwind.” While the New Zealanders just hang out midfield, the Americans do a long series of yoga stretches and then form a huddle that seems to go on forever. I could imagine the Black Sticks already dancing at the Huia Music Festival in Masterton both teams are planning to go to afterwards, while the American players are still in their huddle. All in all, an absolutely awesome event.