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Hull to jointly lead Black Sticks

Wairarapa’s Megan Hull is a strong presence in the heart of the Black Sticks’ defence. PHOTO/GETTY IMAGES

HOCKEY

It’s the start of a new era for the Black Sticks – new faces, a new coach and two new captains. Suzanne McFadden speaks to Olivia Merry and Megan Hull about leading the team back into a critical year of international hockey.

Megan Hull and Olivia Merry are like chalk and cheese. “Like good cop, bad cop”, Merry reckons.

Together with the two experienced Black Sticks, who are close mates, have been charged with leading a new generation of the team into international hockey after almost a year’s absence.

But their differences may well be what makes them successful in their joint role as Black Sticks co-captains.

Away from the hockey field, they’ve had diverse upbringings.

Hull grew up on her family farm, around 410 hectares acres in Pongaroa, north of Masterton. She still gets back there to help out when she can.

Merry, on the other hand, was raised in Christchurch. “I’m definitely a city slicker,” she laughs. “But I did go to Lincoln University, so I have a pair of Red Bands… somewhere.”

Hull has invited Merry and her partner, Warren, to come and help out on the farm: “With her long limbs, she’ll be great at drenching.”

At 30, Merry is the all-time leading goal scorer for the Black Sticks [115 goals] and was the top scorer in the world Pro League in 2019 – the last time the Black Sticks played a full season – with her powerful ball-striking upfront.

Hull, 25, is an unshakeable defender, renowned for her repertoire of strong passing skills and, like Merry, penalty corner strikes.

“Our paths never crossed until we were in the Black Sticks,” Merry said.

“Megs is a little younger than me, and coming from different islands, we didn’t really see each other.”

New Black Sticks co-captains Megan Hull, left, and Olivia Merry, right. PHOTO/SIMON WATTS

But they became friends “from the get-go” when Hull joined the Black Sticks for a second stint in late 2018 [she’d played four tests in 2016].

They’re closer allies on the turf now, as they each fill a shoe of long-time Black Sticks captain, Stacey Michelsen, who has retired after 12 years at the top of the game.

“It’s a big honour,” said Merry, assuming the mantle in her 10th year with the Black Sticks after 244 tests.

“A massive privilege,” said Hull, who has 43 caps, but whose leadership skills were recognised early in her career. “I could never do this without Liv. She’s an amazing leader.”

“We bring very different things to the field,” Merry said. “I can be the one that barks and says ‘This isn’t good enough’. And Megan comes in at the end and says: ‘We need to reflect on why this isn’t good enough’. That’s how I see us working.”

Merry liked to lead by example upfront: “I’m more a tough, dogged person – you have to really earn my trust.”

Hull, who’ll call the shots from the back of the field, was more of a listener.

“I would hope my area of strength lies around inclusion and making sure players have a real voice – we’re both very passionate about this. And connection – making sure as a team we’re on the same page and trying to build a really special environment and a good connection between the players and the management,” she said

“I love people, and I love listening to people’s stories. Everyone brings value to this team.”

Both players moved to Auckland to be part of the Black Sticks hub and had to find full-time jobs.

Merry has started a new role as an account executive with Twin Agencies, a sales and merchandising company with New Zealand food and beverage brands.

Hull works in childcare for Educare in Warkworth, 30 minutes north of the city. “It’s a wee hike to get up there, but I actually enjoy that bit of ‘me-time’. After hockey training, it’s like a reset,” she said.

“They love hockey and they’re really supportive of me. We’re both so lucky to have employers who are really understanding.”

The Black Sticks either train early in the morning or afternoons around 4pm.

“It’s a tough balance,” said Hull. “We’d love to be fulltime professional athletes, but at the same time we have mortgages and rent. It’s cool to have that balance though. You’re at hockey, but you have something else to focus on. It can be good to take a step back sometimes.”

Hull has become engaged to her partner, Geoff Gibson, who’s working on his family farm before the couple spend time living in Belgium later in the year.

For the past month, the Black Sticks have been training without a head coach after Irishman Graham Shaw suddenly resigned after a three-year stint.

Former Black Sticks men’s coach Darren Smith was named interim head coach to take the team to the Commonwealth Games.

Earlier this year, three assistant coaches were assigned to the Black Sticks women.

One of them, former Junior Black Stick Verity Sharland, has taken on the role of helping rebuild the team’s culture – the Black Sticks have had their fair share of culture issues in latter years.

Four-time Olympian and former Black Sticks men’s captain, Shea McAleese, and Hockey NZ’s athletes pathway manager, Bryce Collins, are the other two assistants.

“They all complement each other well,” Hull said. “Shea is happy to give the direct line, and Bryce is positive, optimistic and organised.”

With retirements after the Olympics, injuries and other players taking time out from the game, the Black Sticks have lost over 1700 international caps since Tokyo.

“We’re definitely aware as we head into these tournaments that our caps numbers are relatively low, and game play is so essential,” Hull said. “So we’re really homing in on just giving it a good crack.

“We know we have a special team, and we need to play with confidence. So these games against Aussie are invaluable to us.”

The Black Sticks play four tests against Australia at the National Hockey Stadium in Albany, which started last night.

  • This story originally appeared on newsroom.co.nz and is republished with permission.

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