At the end of New Zealand's final group stage clash against Malaysia which they lost 3-2, head coach Greg Nicol lamented the "terrible hockey" that his team played in that match. Nicol would've known that another similar showing against hosts India in the crossover match would have meant the end of their hopes in the FIH Men's Hockey World Cup 2023.
What happened on Sunday night was the exact opposite of Thursday afternoon for New Zealand. They came out with a purpose, managed to effectively foil India, and created some terrific attacking moves of their own.
So how did New Zealand manage to pull off this upset, against a team ranked six spots higher than them in the world rankings?
Forcing turnovers high up the pitch
In the first half, New Zealand were almost a non-entity after Simon Child's early effort at goal. It was all India, and the hosts took a well-deserved 2-0 lead through Lalit Upadhyay and Sukhjeet Singh. But Sam Lane's goal from close range, late in the second quarter, gave New Zealand a lifeline.
They came out a completely different side after the break. What changed? "The guys just pressed higher, we started turning the ball over a lot more in midfield," captain Nic Woods told ESPN.
- ESPN India (@ESPNIndia) January 22, 2023
Graham Reid was annoyed by how much India gave the ball back to New Zealand, but that was forced by some magnificent high-intensity, in-your-face defending by the visitors. Momentum is an overused word in sport, but New Zealand got in Indian faces, created panic in their opponent's ranks, and stole momentum away from India, to dominate the match.
"We created momentum by doing the little things that we fell short of doing in the first half, simple as that," said Woods.
Second-half attacks from both flanks
Nicol said New Zealand mixed their play up a lot more in the second half, involving both flanks after the break rather than being focused on the left as they were in the first half. Kim Kingstone and Lane focused on attacking India's left flank, while Sean Findlay was having the game of his life down their own left flank.
This meant the Indian wingers like Akashdeep Singh and Sukhjeet spent a bulk of the second half defending in their own final third. Then, even when India won the ball back, they didn't have enough options to play it forward, panicked and gave the ball away.
Of course, it helps when you score two from the only two penalty corners you won on the night. More so, when that is an issue that has plagued your opponents all tournament (India were 2/10 from PCs on the night, and 5/26 in the tournament).
Sean Findlay's one-man show
In the first half, India had some lovely combination play going in and around the circle. When New Zealand managed to win the ball back, their approach play was slow and ponderous, and didn't look like hurting India. In the second half, that changed, and it was down to Findlay. On that New Zealand left, the youngster tormented the Indian defence with his aggressive running and impeccable stick work.
"What a guy, 21 years old, he had a brilliant game," said the New Zealand captain after the match. There were times in that second half when it seemed like the New Zealand game plan was just "Run, Sean, Run!" And run, he did.
With just a little more than six minutes to go for the end, the scores were level but New Zealand were reduced to ten men for five minutes, as Nick Ross picked up a yellow card for diving into Abhishek. It was in that period that New Zealand needed to withstand some Indian pressure. The best way to do that was to hold on to the ball, and that's where Findlay came into play. "For us as team, it was just about seeing that he was having such a good game, and then giving him the ball to take us up the pitch and do his thing," the New Zealand captain Woods said.
New Zealand conceded just one chance in those five minutes, but India fluffed the penalty corner
Simon Child embodies New Zealand spirit
After the match, Nicol told ESPN that he was proud of his team for their showing in this game. "Every time India threw a punch, we threw another punch back. We showed a lot of character," the coach said.
Simon Child is a battle-hardened veteran of 292 international caps, and he was a living example of the character that Nicol spoke about. If he missed once, Child kept coming back for more, head never bowed, spirit never broken.
The 34-year-old had New Zealand's first big chance of the match when he forced his way into the circle and was denied by PR Sreejesh. Child was then in the thick of things at the other end of the pitch, when he sensationally diverted a goal-bound Harmanpreet Singh dragflick away.
Then Child set up Kingston who put it wide with an open goal gaping in front of him. But none of that was going to stop Child from coming back and throwing punches again. Late in the first half, he set up Lane to score New Zealand's first, which enabled them to go into half-time with a small foothold in the game.
Child kept creating chances, kept getting shots away, and in the end, his team was rewarded.
Nicol says they will be ready for the quarterfinal against Belgium. How far will their spirit and character take them against the defending world and Olympic champions?