Are Brisbane Blaze Women in a hockey malaise?

By Simon Orchard

Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room…

The Brisbane Blaze women were my preseason pick to win the 2022 Sultana Bran Hockey One League title.

I haven’t given up on them yet but losses to the Tassie Tigers and Canberra Chill in the opening two rounds were surprising, and with a season-defining clash with the unbeaten Perth Thundersticks in Round 3, their season could be over by Saturday evening if they lose again.

So what is up with Brissie?

I think their early struggles stem from a ‘blinkered’ attacking structure and a real leadership void.

One Direction In Attack

Too many times in the opening two rounds Brisbane were intent on attacking through the crown or top of the opposition circle as seen below.

There is a time and place for crash ball or hard ball in but if you look at the picture above, the Canberra Chill are in a fairly good defensive structure here. Their marking can be a little tighter in the circle but they have great pressure on the ball and in a forehand position, they have a sweeper on the hotline to goal and have players either side of the ball to stop sideways movement around the circle’s edge – not to mention the sheer volume of defenders.

The Blaze tried to fire this ball through the circle but it was blocked by the closest Canberra Chill player, and even if they did secure an outcome, it would be more good luck than good design.

In the opening quarter of this game, the Blaze had nine circle penetrations for one result (that reverse stick shot by Cullum-Sanders only came after she cleverly picked the pocket of a Canberra Chill defender).

A handful of those entries were hard hit long balls, seemingly with no real target or purpose and the rest were played in around the crown of the circle where the bulk of the Chill’s defensive numbers were situated.

If I was Coach Nikki Taylor, I’d sit the side down in front of the whiteboard and circle four areas of the field the side needs to focus their attack on – two T-spots and two quarter T-spots.

The T-spots are located on each side of the goal where the circle meets the baseline and the quarter T-spots are on both sidelines where the 25-yard line intersects them. You can see these spots highlighted in the picture below.

This passage is another great example of ‘blinkered’ play. Fitzpatrick slaps this ball straight to a Chill defender in the circle. The pass needs to go to the T-spot but she clearly has no one to give it to. In a perfect world, one of the Blaze strikers leads to the T-spot and receives on her upright reverse in the circle, protecting the ball from her defender with her body. If the lead doesn’t come, Fitzpatrick has enough ability and time and space to attack Chill midfielder Kalindi Commerford’s left foot on the dribble and drive towards the T-spot herself.

Focusing the attacking attention of these areas of the field allows a team to stretch a defence with added width and depth and it creates wider passing channels for defenders or midfielders to feed passes into the circle or attack on the run.

Not only is it a more meaningful way to attack, it’s a smarter way to defend as well.

Turning the ball over at the top of the circle usually means any attacker forward of the ball is eliminated and the opposition can launch a counter attack with all areas of the field available.

If you turn the ball over at the T-spot or quarter T-spot, the risk of a counter attack is far lower and as the ball is now in a wider position, it’s easier to press the ball towards a sideline.

Here’s an example of a good attacking 25 foray from the Blaze…

You can already see the difference in spacing and structure and the questions being asked of the Chill defenders.

One Blaze player maintains the width on the left towards the quarter T-spot while another leads towards the T-spot on the baseline.

The right midfielder for the Chill has turned her body side on to the ball carrier and is trying to cover the passing lane to the circle and the Blaze player to her outside, while the free defender on top of the circle now has to start moving to protect the hotline between ball and goal.

As the ball is shifted wide, Brisbane now has a 1v1 on the edge of the circle which can be a dangerous opportunity. The free defender for the Canberra Chill is in motion and being dragged around the circle to a more uncomfortable spot, while the initial Blaze ball carrier is now free on the dotted circle ready for another involvement.

Here the Blaze midfielder on the ball makes a really good movement. She decides against the 1v1 opportunity and instead runs a strong forehand curve back towards the top of the circle and engages two different defenders.

While this is happening she interchanges with the teammate that passed her the ball initially and that player is now free on the edge of the circle towards the T-point.

Brisbane win a free hit but all of a sudden they have a free player on the edge of the circle in a dangerous spot. They’ve made the free defender for the Chill shuttle side to side (the more you do this throughout the contest the more fatigue sets in later in the game) and they can easily pass it back out to their left defender to maintain sustained attacking pressure if they want to.

The recipe is there, there just needs to be of a focus on those points of attack if Brisbane is to have more success.

Where For Art Thou Leaders?   

Unlike any other side in the women’s league, the Blaze has experienced a real leadership vacuum since claiming the inaugural title three years ago.

None of 2019 captain Jodie Kenny, defender Madison Fitzpatrick (overseas commitments) or 2018 Commonwealth Games silver medallist Jordy Holzberger are suiting up this season.

Hockeyroos stars Steph Kershaw and Renee Taylor didn’t play in the 2019 decider but boast more than 200 international caps between them. Kershaw is currently playing club hockey overseas and while Taylor is recovering from injury and will take no part in the 2022 season.

And Ash Fey was among the MVP candidates in Season 1 but suffered a calf injury in the opening round loss to Tassie. Calves can be tricky to overcome and often take more than a week to improve so who knows when we will see her again or whether she will be at her best when we do.

So who is left to steer the ship?

Claire Colwill and Hannah Cullum-Sanders both made their Hockeyroos debut this year but are only 19-years-old. Colwill hasn’t lost any admirers this season and has been a strong and dynamic presence in the heart of the Blaze side through two rounds. Cullum-Sanders has looked dangerous and shown signs of potential too – but neither should be relied on too heavily to drag this side back into championship contention.

There may be future leaders among the likes of Dayle Dolkens, Kyra Livermore, Ruby Harris, Jesse Reid, Jade Smith and Georgina West – but ultimately they are just kids trying to keep their head above water in the big waves of Australia’s premier hockey league.

Sav Fitzpatrick (27), Rosie Malone (24) and to a lesser extent Bec Greiner (23) all have experience at the highest level and are the ones I’d be pressing for more impact if I was Coach Taylor.

On one hand I sympathise with them. The trio are all noted strikers but due to personnel issues, Fitzpatrick and Greiner have been playing in the midfield where they have the tools to be successful but lack top level experience. I would also argue Malone has been starved of opportunity at the front of a side struggling to create meaningful attacking opportunities (as discussed above).

On the other hand, Fitzpatrick and Greiner haven’t yet been able to consistently break lines with their run and carry or penetrate with their passing game. You’d expect that to improve as the season progresses but they are also yet to bump into some of the form midfielders of the league in Amy Lawton, Georgia Wilson, Jane Claxton and Gabi Nance.

Malone’s craft around the circle and goal sense have made her a mainstay of the Hockeyroos of late and those skills are hard to replicate in a struggling side so she must try and generate her own opportunities through more steals and interceptions. Even by applying frenetic pressure in the press, Malone can provide the spark to ignite this Blaze outfit.

There’s no doubt all three are among the most talented players in the Sultana Bran Hockey League but if the Blaze are to defend their title from three years ago they must do more, and quick.

The Brisbane Blaze head to Perth to tackle the Thundersticks in Round 3 of the Sultana Bran Hockey One League this Saturday 15 October from 4:30pm local time (7.30pm AEDT). The match will be broadcast live on Kayo.