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Black Sticks hotshot just goes on her Merry way

Black Stick Olivia Merry may lead the world in goal scoring in hockey's new Pro League, but frankly she doesn't give a damn about the numbers, she tells David Leggat.

For some athletes, statistics are a vital component in their pursuit of excellence. They act as an ideal motivating tool.

To others, they don’t really matter, and certainly don’t tell the full story of their worth as an athlete.

Take Olivia Merry. She’s up to 210 internationals for the Black Sticks and scored 85 goals since her debut in late 2012. Only the recently-retired Anita McLaren, with 105, has scored more.

Right now, Merry leads the new world Pro League scoring table, with five goals from five games.

Of course she knows that, right?

Well, she might be aware of it, but she certainly isn’t interested in it.

“No, not at all. I don’t really play for them,” the free-scoring attacker says of personal statistics, as she and her team-mates prepare for an important Pro League double-header against the United States and Argentina at North Harbour this weekend.

“They sort of happen. It’s all part of being in a team.”

It’s that four-letter ‘T’ word that really matters to Merry, who’s a week short of her 27th birthday. It’s clear given the choice she’d take a team over an individual sport every day of the week.

“It’s probably my personality. I really like the camaraderie you get with your team and being among people who are really like-minded and have a common goal is fantastic,” she says.

If she had to stick to individual sport: “I think I’d be very lonely”.

Let’s put Merry’s value to the Black Sticks into some context.

She has scored eight of New Zealand’s last 14 goals, is the leading scorer internationally in the women’s Pro League going into this weekend, and McLaren’s national record mark is on the horizon. Not that Merry professes to be particularly interested in chasing that.

They were different players, but key parts of the first Black Sticks team who won a Commonwealth Games gold medal on the Gold Coast last year.

McLaren, who brought serious speed to the Black Sticks’ game, became an immensely successful penalty corner drag flicker. Merry, physically more imposing and now one of the main figures at the critical set piece play, has deft stick skills and is an important figure among a young group of attacking players in the squad.

The departures of the likes of Gemma McCaw, Charlotte Harrison, and a little earlier, Katie Glynn, have pushed Merry up the ladder of senior attacking figures.

Once she was a promising player coming into the Black Sticks soon after the 2012 Olympics and learning on the job. Now, along with captain Stacey Michelsen and senior defender Sam Charlton, she’s one of the trio the other players look to.

Glynn has no doubts about Merry’s significance for the Black Sticks. Glynn knew her way to goal too - her 77 international goals puts her joint third for New Zealand scorers with Krystal Forgesson. She’s now helping out as assistant Black Sticks coach.

“Her strength is a big attribute,” Glynn says of Merry. “She’s obviously got good size but it’s how you use it. In the attacking circle she’s very smart, uses her body and strength to get into good positions. But it’s also about timing and how you read the game.”

A determined Merry lunges for the ball in a tussle with her old rival, British keeper Maddie Hinch, at the 2016 Olympics. Photo: Getty Images.

Few players have Merry’s ball striking power. Add in with that opponents acknowledging her as a threat, she can open space for fellow attackers to take advantage.

Then add in the drag flick ability of defender Brooke Neal, and the Black Sticks have a nice blend of Merry’s power shot and Neal’s flick as good options at the set piece.

“That’s hard to counteract from a defensive point of view,” Glynn adds, pointing out that Merry is now taking a more active role as leader of the attack.

“She’s got the opportunity to help the younger players grow. You’ve got to work together. Sometimes your role is to be a decoy. But when the going gets tough and you’re under pressure, she’s working really hard.”

Merry first picked up a hockey stick at five, but admits her “real passion and desire” to become a Black Stick didn’t kick in until about 13 or 14, while she was at Avonside Girls High School in Christchurch.

Former Black Stick Amanda Hooper – tragically killed in the 2011 Christchurch earthquake – was an early inspiration.

Merry has always been an attacker. “I think it was the fact I didn’t have to do any defending. And the love for scoring goals and being on the end of a really good team play.”

How about the best of those 85 goals?

A moment’s thought, then, her effort against Britain in the semifinal of the world league four finals at North Harbour in late 2017.

It came against the formidable goalkeeper Maddie Hinch – “and it was probably the circumstances of playing at home in our first big [home] tournament, and we hadn’t played well in the pool games. Then we won our quarter-final against Argentina and the semi.”

Scoring in the stunning 4-1 drubbing of favourites Australia to win Commonwealth Games gold stands out too – especially as she’d broken a finger four hours before the opening game.

“I was probably in a bit of pain, so to be able to put the ball in the back of the net was pretty special.”

Again, it’s not a particular part of the game this self-effacing striker focuses on. “It’s the luck of the draw, sometimes you’re on the end of a really good team play and are the one putting the ball in the net,” she says.

That Games gold was achieved when Mark Hager was coaching the Black Sticks. The former Australian star striker’s resignation came during a lengthy and ultimately damning review of the team’s culture, that revealed a “negative environment”. That prompted Hockey NZ to apologise to the players, and promise “resources and support to ensure athlete wellbeing.”

Hager’s assistant, Sean Dancer, has been acting coach. But yesterday Hockey NZ announced the appointment of Graham Shaw as the new Black Sticks coach. 

Shaw was the man who guided the Irish women to the final of last year’s Hockey World Cup, and lifted Ireland from 16th to eighth in the world rankings. A former Irish international, Shaw will start his new role on May 1 – his first international will be the Black Sticks’ away match against the United States in Pennsylvania a month later.

In all the turmoil the Black Sticks have gone through, Merry takes a ‘steady as she goes’ line.

“Our team has put processes in place to deal with what’s been going on. It’s not ideal for any party,” Merry says

“But we’ve got a great group of girls and management and we think we’re pretty good at dealing with what crops up. We’re on the right track at the moment.”

So far in the Pro League the Black Sticks, ranked No. 6 in the world, have had two wins – over Britain and China - and three defeats, to the Dutch, Belgians and Germany.

But the Pro League, featuring the top nine teams in the world, in its inaugural year and locked in for four years at this point, involves a learning process for teams more used to tournament play, with games generally every second day for a week.

“It’s completely different to what it is when you go away to a tournament. It’s pretty exciting to train all week for one game. We have to keep performing week after week to our highest standards.”

If the Black Sticks are to make the top four at the end of the round robin, and qualify for the playoffs, it’s looking like the more Merry the better. 

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