1 Feb 2020

Black Sticks set for new Pro League season

10:09 am on 1 February 2020

Both the New Zealand women's and men's hockey teams hope this year's Pro League will provide a springboard into the looming Tokyo Olympics.

Black Sticks hockey player Samantha Charlton.

Photo: © Photosport Ltd 2019 / Alisha Lovrich

The two Black Sticks sides host their Belgian counterparts for a pair of matches on Auckland's North Shore this weekend.

To be played at the newly opened National Hockey Centre, the fixtures on Saturday and Sunday kick-start the campaigns for the Kiwi teams in what is the second season of the new annual international competition.

With the Games in Japan less than six months away, New Zealand women's captain Stacey Michelsen was clear about their objectives for the 2020 Pro League.

"This year it's definitely a chance to use it as a building phase through to the Olympics.

"Certainly at the start, while we've got a few injuries and obviously a wider squad, it'll be great for everyone to have a bit of an opportunity to play some of those games."

That included returning veterans Kayla Whitelock and Gemma McCaw.

The vastly experienced pair, who have jointly appeared at seven Olympics, have come out of retirement to rejoin the New Zealand squad.

Michelsen said having Whitelock and McCaw back was invaluable.

"We are often a very young team. Just the nature of being a women's hockey team in New Zealand we do often have quite a young group.

"So to have that experience back in an important year like an Olympic year, to have those girls that have obviously experienced the Olympics over and over again does really add to the group."

While the matches in Auckland are the first of the new Pro League season for the Kiwi teams, the Belgian men and women got their campaigns underway against Australia in Sydney last weekend.

The 12th-ranked women's side defied the world rankings to earn two draws with the second-ranked Hockeyroos, while the Belgium men had a draw and a win in a battle of the top two men's teams in the world.

The Black Sticks men managed a draw against top-ranked Belgium in Auckland last year, before the reigning world champions romped to a 4-0 nil win on home turf in Belgium.

New Zealand captain Blair Tarrant said they had looked back on last year's Pro League.

"We learned you need to start well and with the double-headers this year it's really important that you get some points from each weekend.

"It's a great opportunity to test ourselves against the best teams in the world. It's also good to get our whole squad through during the Pro League and we can start honing in later in the Pro League to focus on the Olympics.

"We've obviously watched Belgium playing in Aussie last weekend and they looking pretty sharp so it's going to be a good test for us, first up in the year."