Mark Hager has been left with a hole 274 tests deep, but the New Zealand women’s hockey team coach is confident he can fill it.
Hager named his 16-player squad for the Rio Olympics in Auckland on Thursday, with one notable absentee.
The country’s most-capped female international, with almost two decades experience at test level, Emily Gaddum is pregnant with her first child and will not finish her career with a fourth Games appearance.
“We are really excited for Emily, but I won’t lie, it was really disappointing because she is such a good defender,” he said.
“There is not much we can do about it. We’ll have to fill the hole and we are already looking at how we can replace Emily in that deep defence role.
“It is no secret we didn’t have her on the last tour and we struggled defensively. That is a void we have to fill pretty quickly.”
Without Gaddum and fellow defensive linchpin Samantha Charlton, the world No 4 Black Sticks won just the single game of six at the Champions Trophy to finish sixth and last.
The performance came as a surprise after a strong six month period where the team finished runner-up at the World League Final, beat second-ranked Argentina in a six-match series on their own soil and overcame third-ranked Australia twice on-route to two tournament triumphs.
After almost a couple of weeks to digest the Champions Trophy result, Hager said it was clear their defensive structure had been thrown out by the absence of two quality players.
While it wasn’t ideal, Hager was confident the issues would be remedied in time for Rio.
“It’s probably been a big wake-up call for us and highlights to everyone how close the women’s competition is.
“We conceded 18 goals in six games. It’s not rocket science we need to be better defensively.
“It has to be a mindset change , but it is very fixable. The girls are very smart hockey players and they’ll adapt quickly.”
Given the experience he still has to call on, you can see why Hager is optimistic in that regard.
Led by three-time Olympian Kayla Whitelock, the squad features four others with more than 200 international caps (Anita McLaren, Gemma Flynn, Charlotte Harrison and Stacey Michelsen).
Eight others have played more than 100 tests, meaning only Kirsten Pearce, Brooke Neal and bolter Kelsey Smith are yet to rack up three figures in a group which averages a whopping 145 Black Sticks appearances.
In a Olympic pool featuring defending Olympic and world champions the Netherlands, world No 5 China and the dangerous pair of Germany (8) and Korea (9), along with 24th-ranked Spain, that does not guarantee anything.
But with the disappointment of a fourth place finish at the London 2012 Games still fresh for Hager and six of his squad, the Kiwi coach knows there is no lack of drive to achieve something special.
And if the reason his most-experienced player has returned to international hockey after having her first child is anything to go by, Hager is optimistic the Champions Trophy performance was simply a late bump in the road.
“[Kayla] told the girls the other day, she wouldn’t have come back if she didn’t think this team could win a medal,” Hager said.
“She feels this is the best team she has been with in the 10 years she has been involved.
“We are still going out there to win a gold medal.”
AT A GLANCE
New Zealand women’s hockey squad for Rio Olympics (team/caps):
Sam Charlton (Midlands, 171), Sophie Cocks (Canterbury, 107), Gemma Flynn (Midlands, 238), Charlotte Harrison (Auckland, 214), Pippa Hayward (Canterbury, 109), Rose Keddell (Midlands, 128), Anita McLaren (Capital, 239), Olivia Merry (Canterbury, 132), Stacey Michelsen (Northland, 208), Brooke Neal (Northland, 88), Kirsten Pearce (North Harbour, 53), Sally Rutherford (Midlands, 118), Kelsey Smith (Capital, 20), Liz Thompson (Auckland, 114), Petrea Webster (North Harbour, 144), Kayla Whitelock (captain, Central, 247).
New Zealand pool matches (NZ times):
Monday, August 8: vs Korea, 1am
Tuesday, August 9: vs Germany, 4.30am
Thursday, August 11: vs Spain, 1am
Saturday, August 13: vs Netherlands, 2am
Sunday, August 14: vs China, 11.30am