The Kookaburras are the first hockey team outside the host nation to qualify for next year’s Olympic Games after winning the third and final match of the Oceania Cup 3-1 against New Zealand.
After the first two matches produced a win each, the Kookaburras survived a hotly contested challenge from the Black Sticks in the decider to ensure they will feature in Paris and maintain their record of winning every edition of the Oceania Cup.
First quarter goals from Ky Willott and Jeremy Hayward, followed by the sealer from Jack Welch five minutes from full time did the business for the Kookaburras.
With it all to play for, the Kookaburras crucially struck first in the 5th minute. Blake Govers hammered the ball into the circle from the right and Willott showed maximum commitment, diving full stretch to connect his stick to the ball and glance it in at the near post.
Unlike when they found themselves three goals down 24 hours earlier, the Kookaburras were in full control in the opening quarter, dominating possession and territory.
Captain Aran Zalewski sent a rushed attempt just wide of the target before Black Sticks goalkeeper Leon Hayward came to New Zealand’s rescue twice from two Kookaburras penalty corners in quick succession.
A deserved second goal came in the 13th minute when some superb stick work from Nathan Ephraums won the Kookaburras another penalty corner and it was executed to perfection, Jeremy Hayward firing his low drag flick past his brother in the Black Sticks goal.
Stunned into action, the home side started to enjoy more possession in the second quarter and they clawed a goal back through Hayden Phillips, who pounced from close range after Kookaburras goalkeeper Johan Durst made an initial save.
As both sides threw themselves into every tackle and challenge, the Kookaburras’ cause was aided when New Zealand’s Sean Findlay received a yellow card with ten minutes to go in the third quarter to leave the hosts down a player until the start of the last. However, the Kookaburras could not take advantage as the Black Sticks defended gallantly.
The last quarter was a full throttle affair as the Black Sticks threw everything at the Australians.
However, the Australians’ composure was on full display, Ephraums going close to giving the Kookaburras a two goal buffer.
Nervousness then turned to relief in the 55th minute when the Kookaburras did manage to make it 3-1. Forced to defend a penalty corner, the Black Sticks were expecting another Hayward drag flick but instead he sent the ball deftly on to Welch and he hammered it into the back of the net.
Mission accomplished as the Kookaburras return home with their sights well and truly set on going one better from the silver medal won in Tokyo in 2021.
“I’m still riding the emotion from the game,” said Zalewski post match.
“It was such a tight, well fought series. Full credit to the Kiwis, it was great to play out here and we’re stoked to be going to Paris.”
“New Zealand had a lot of momentum coming into today. We had to fight to arrest that momentum back and the Black Sticks kept coming, so I’m really proud of the boys and how we managed to keep the scoreboard in our favour.”
“We have come together really well as a group this week. We just want to keep supporting each other and we’re stoked to secure our ticket to Paris.”
New Zealand 1 (Phillips 27’)
Kookaburras 3 (Willott 5’, Hayward 13’, Welch 55’)
Kookaburras: 2.Tom Craig, 4.Jake Harvie, 6.Matthew Dawson, 7.Nathan Ephraums, 8.Johan Durst (gk), 10.Josh Beltz, 11.Eddie Ockenden, 12.Jake Whetton, 13.Blake Govers, 15.Jayden Atkinson, 16.Tim Howard, 17.Aran Zalewski (c), 20.Ky Willott, 21.Jack Welch, 22.Flynn Ogilvie, 23.Daniel Beale, 32.Jeremy Hayward
Unused substitute: 18.Ben Rennie (gk)