Black Stick Charlton primed for hockey’s big leap

Every sports team needs a Sam Charlton.

In this case, the women’s Black Sticks are the beneficiary of her skill, enthusiasm and wisdom, as they embark this weekend on international hockey’s big leap forward - the new worldwide Pro League.

The two national Black Sticks teams (the women, Commonwealth Games champions, are ranked sixth; the men eighth) are part of the 18-team league, which sees home-and-away rounds spread over six months.

It’s the sort of event which should be the envy of other sports.

Rugby’s bosses, for example, are simply unable to come up with a global season, largely down to self-interest. Football has its quadrennial World Cup and continental championships which last roughly a month, and the high-wattage Champions League is a club competition, albeit with bells and whistles galore.

Cricket has its World Cups in 50 and 20-over disciplines, but hockey has stolen a march; now it’s up to the games governing body to make it work. There’s a four-year programme locked in and, for New Zealand, that means annual visits downunder from the European hockey powers, who are traditionally hard to prise away from their own patch.

The Black Sticks begin their campaigns in Auckland on Sunday, with a double-header against the formidable Dutch – ranked No 1 for women, and No 3 for men.

That’s followed by another against Belgium on February 1, before coming up against the British (led by the Black Sticks’ recently departed coach Mark Hager) in Christchurch on February 8. The Germans are there seven days later.

From that point it rolls on across the globe, culminating in finals for the top four in Amsterdam in late June.

So where specifically does 27-year-old Charlton fit in? Think of her as the glue that holds the Black Sticks together.

This is a side who have lost a clutch of top-class internationals since the 2016 Rio Olympics, when they finished a galling fourth for the second straight Games.

Gone are the likes of captain Kayla Whitelock, defensive rock and New Zealand’s most-capped international Emily Gaddum, and sparky strikers Gemma McCaw and Charlotte Harrison.

But Charlton, and captain Stacey Michelsen, remain.

While Michelsen is among the game’s outstanding players (a world player of the year finalist), Charlton, who operates in midfield or defence, is the sort of reliable, no-frills player on whom coaches, and team mates, rely.

They also form the leadership group, along with new coach Sean Dancer. With eight years of experience in the New Zealand side, Charlton is an ear for the clutch of young players when they need a guiding hand.

"I’ve been around for quite a long time and the majority of our group is quite young," she says. "So I do see my role as making sure we’re heading in the right direction when we take the field and ensure the new girls come up to speed really quickly.

"They might say ‘Hey can you watch the video with me and help me work out structures?’ or ‘What should I do with the ball here?’. They’re all pretty keen to learn and it’s nice they don’t always have to ask the coaches."

Which brings us neatly to the elephant in this story.

The Black Sticks will work under stand-in coach Dancer, who is stepping up in the wake of long-time coach and fellow Aussie Mark Hager’s resignation. Hockey has been embroiled in a lengthy review over culture, after complaints from a small handful of players which suggested Hager’s no-nonsense style of coaching didn’t suit everyone.

The rights and wrongs of that are for another time – and the review findings still haven’t been made public - but former under-21 Australian representative Dancer has been integral to the inner workings and tactical approach for the Black Sticks. The transition should be reasonably seamless although the new man will have his own ideas to implement.

Long-time Black Sticks coach Mark Hager will come up against his old team when the English women come to Christchurch next month. Photo: Getty Images. 

Charlton did clarify one aspect of the controversy surrounding Hager’s leaked email during the World Cup in England in July which, in short, led to his resignation.

The email was intended for another management official but reached the players. It was critical of several players’ skills, talent, fitness or attitude.

The common assumption, never really denied, was the players discovered the contents of the email before their worst performance of the tournament, a 2-1 loss to Japan. Ergo, the email had thrown them off their game.

But Charlton says they got Hager’s email after the Japan game and just before a 1-1 draw with Australia. Players shattered before facing Japan? That’s just gone out the window.

"We played probably our best game against Australia [a 1-1 draw], which was the next one," Charlton says. "I’m not saying we played well because it happened after that, but I definitely don’t think we can say we didn’t perform because of that [email]. A lot of people forget that."

The Black Sticks finished a lowly 12th, a rapid comedown from their Commonwealth Games triumph on the Gold Coast earlier in the year.

The Pro League will be tough for players holding down a job. Charlton, a nutritionist who now works for herself, accepts that.

"I don’t think there’s any point pretending it’s going to be fine. If you work for someone else you have to have a flexible employer who is willing to help you," she says.

"I’m lucky because I work as a contractor and do some work for the New Zealand Olympic Committee, and they’re pretty understanding.

"I've found working for myself a lot easier, but I do imagine for some other girls who are trying to hold down jobs it will be difficult."

Charlton believes sportspeople at the top of the tree often tailor their intended career path slightly when confronted with the sport/career dilemma.

"I wouldn’t say anyone is doing exactly what they would be if they weren’t playing hockey. It’s just the nature of what we’re doing -- and we’ve chosen to do this." 

Charlton was born in Wellington, did her primary education in Auckland, went to Otumoetai College in Tauranga, and was at Canterbury University when she won her first international cap against Australia in 2010. (She has a Bachelor of Science in psychology and human nutrition).

Home is Tauranga, but you could call her an all-round New Zealander.

She is engaged to men’s Black Stick Marcus Child, so it’s fair to assume hockey occupies a fair chunk of their conversation and life together.

Charlton is up to 226 caps, which she didn’t know. That’s seventh overall, and just 48 behind record holder Gaddum.

And just to be clear, that’s not a shining beacon of ambition for Charlton.

"It’s not something I think about. I’m more focused on winning. I don’t care how many games I play - if I walk away with an Olympic medal I’d be happy."

Ah yes, fourth in London in 2012, repeated in Rio. Tough breaks - from a position to play for a gold medal to ending up with nothing, twice.

"I’m definitely more driven than ever to win a medal at Tokyo. But at the end you have to be open to the fact it might not happen. That’s quite scary because a lot of my focus is on that," she says.

And, finally, what of the Pro League? Exciting, can’t wait, would sum it up.

"And it’s really cool for supporters and fans, and up-and-coming little kids to see those teams in action against us," she says.

"It’s one thing to watch us play on TV against them. But to see it live, I think, will be hugely inspiring for those younger players." 

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