Taking the ‘Fix’ out of ‘Fixture’

 Thursday 30 November 2017


Well, the Women’s HWL final is done and dusted. The Netherlands took the title, no real surprise there. It was well deserved, no doubt. The Dutch women are playing well, but even they would concede they could get better. The next step on from beating good teams is handing them a flogging, much like the Australian men did to the Netherlands male counterparts at the last World Cup. And from the bottom of our hearts, we here at The Reverse Stick wish any ladies coming up against the Dutch girls when they get to that level the best of luck, and well done on second place.


Overall the tournament was a huge success. From all reports the locals turned out in force and gained a lot of support nationally in New Zealand. It will no doubt have helped to inspire the next generation, or maybe even two, to carry on the Black Sticks legacy.


But you can’t have a major sporting event without some controversy somewhere. And at the HWL finals it was fixturing*. And as we happen to carry a large stirring spoon in our back pocket, just in case, we thought we would have our say and offer a solution.


Now the main bone of contention that critics have with the current set up of the HWL finals is the quarterfinal stage. Traditional sporting tournaments had a pool phase, from which teams would compete for a spot in the quarterfinal. Not so with the HWL. And a this point it must be stated that this is not the first time that this model has been used by the FIH.


Which makes some of the criticism that has come in the aftermath of New Zealand’s defeat of Argentina in the quarter finals, as sensible as it was, a little bit too late, at least for Argentina. After all, Noah built the ark before the flood. No good having an issue with the men’s final either, that has been in the loop for some time.


What the Hockey community can do now though is ensure this situation does not occur again. And just opposing something does not fix the problem. What the FIH needs now is ideas. Whinging will go nowhere, but the seed of an idea may grow. And we have our ideas


We need to maintain the primacy of our showcase tournaments. This has traditionally been the Olympics, the World Cup and the Champions Trophy. Everything else sat below that. Now we have a Hockey World League and soon a Pro Hockey League. Exactly how that plays into the psyche of the modern Hockey follower is yet to be determined, But in a calendar already overflowing with meaningless International ‘practise’ games it is hard to know what winning and losing really means.


My economics education is somewhat limited, but what I have learnt from watching ‘Trading Places’ many times over the years is that when you flood the market, the price drops. And so does interest. People turn up to ‘Carols by Candlelight’ because it is only on once a year, not because they can pop down the park any Saturday night and hear some Christmas carols.


And that means we have to protect the integrity and primacy of our major tournaments, whatever we as a hockey community decide they are. We are not talking about dinky little international training sessions like the recent International Festival of Hockey; as good as it was for spectators and players alike. But it really meant nothing. And as nice as it is to share the love around, bronze in a four-team tournament is still second last.


If we are to call the tippy-top of our game elite then they need to be tested at the elite level. And the elite level is ruthless. As it should be. And not ruthless in a Joseph Stalin sort of way, more like the thinking of Bruce Lee. There should be consequences for losing, even if being sentenced to a gulag or kicked in the head is a bit harsh.


Make pool games count. The most obvious reason for this came from our Indian correspondent Jaspreet Shani, who made the point that spectators have no reason to watch a game that means nothing. If your team is in the quarterfinals anyway, why watch pool matches? If you are going to set aside the time to watch, you want it to be a big game, more so now in the modern world than ever before.


Winning should count. Win more than someone else and you should get an advantage.


Losing should count. Lose one, better hope results go your way. Lose two and you can probably pack your bags. On this point we need to digress: This is the bit where the broadcasters come in. Many see the HWL final fixtureing as all about the number of games the FIH is contracted to provide. This may very well be the case. If so, is there not more to be gained by putting something at stake during the group phase. It not only makes the fortunes of your country count, but potentially the outcome of matches involving other nations as well. A draw in the right game can throw a four team group wide open. And it also makes every goal vital. The current HWL set-up means it doesn’t matter how poorly you play for half of the tournament, you still get a lollipop.


In an eight-team comp you should not need a quarterfinal. Two pools of four, with the top two from each pool going through to the semi-finals. Quarterfinals are only needed when you have eight teams making the finals in perhaps a 12-16 team competition.


Get rid of  ‘classification’ games. Don’t make the finals? Bad luck, your tournament is over! Not every one gel’s a prize. Especially at the sports blue ribbon events. Some will argue that these games are important for world rankings points. That is easily fixed. If you don’t make the finals you get the same points as everyone else that didn’t make the finals. It could also be argued that this would not work at the Olympics, where every team would need to play a placegetters game. Considering there is no guarantee that hockey will continue in it’s present form at the Olympic games, and pressure is mounting on the sport to lower its personnel intensive ‘footprint’ on the event, there is no reason to believe an Olympic gold will remain at the pinnacle of our sport.


There will also be claims that this se-tup will place some sort of financial burden on players and associations. Many countries will have forked out good money for their players to be playing hockey, not sit around for 4 or 5 days waiting to catch the pre-booked flight home.


And what do the players do? Well, if we were coaching a team that missed the finals, every player would be attending every game of the finals series. And we would make them sit through the presentations. Then we would all go to the bar and buy the players a nice cup of tea to sip on while they watch the winning team celebrate.


We would also bring about a change to the semi final structure. This change is modelled on the structure currently employed by HockeyWa and undoubtedly many other associations in Australia. It would also give the broadcasters another game, and one that meant something. We would love your feedback.


Semi-final 1: top rank pool A v top rank pool B   winner semi 1 to GF   loser to PF

Semi-final 2: second pool A v second pool B     winner semi 2 to PF  loser out

Preliminary Final: loser semi 1 v winner semi 2    winner to GF

Grand Final:  winner Semi 1 v winner PF


Under this system we see both semi-finals played on the same day. The pre-lim final would be played on the next day and the grand final on the last day. Basically Friday, Saturday and the Final on Sunday. Group games or quarter finals would be done and dusted by the Wednesday, giving all teams involved with finals a day’s break. This day could be used for any qualification matches with perhaps games on the Saturday as well.


And just as something different. On match day the game before the Grand Final should be a ‘Celebrity Game’. Get the Hockey media out there, with current players commentating the game. There could be celebrity stars that have played the game, team mascots and some comedian who will fall over a banana peel or such. Doesn’t have to be serious 11 a side stuff. Maybe 5 a side with a giant ball. Maybe some sort of all-star Father/Son/Mother/Daughter thing. How about the coach’s of the teams not playing vs the umpires not umpiring? I am watching that! There are plenty of possibilities.


As many people have pointed out on social media the blame seems to fall on the FIH and broadcasters. And that is probably where responsibility lies to a large extent. But you cannot blame broadcasters for wanting content and you can’t blame the FIH for wanting to provide it. In some ways it may seem as if we are arguing for less Hockey to be televised. We feel we are asking for more meaningful Hockey to be played.


*Personally I think the efforts of the New Zealand team were remarkable, and in some ways they used the draw to their advantage. As the Reverse Stick’s master coach guru Matt Allan outlined during podcast #23 and again following the group stage in Podcast #24, why wouldn’t you have a look first before laying your cards out. I would say pure genius, but I have to put up with him each week.

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