As the Black Sticks men’s hockey team begin a new Olympic cycle, desperate to bounce back from the disappointment of Rio, two gifted young players are managing their own career comebacks, Suzanne McFadden reports.

A month ago, teenager Hayden Phillips and George Muir, just 23, shared the responsibility of managing the Black Sticks team who took on Pakistan in a five-test home series.

It was an unusual step in the rehabilitation process for the two talented midfielders, both on the comeback from unfortunate injuries.

Phillips, the unheralded Palmerston North teenager who bolted into the New Zealand team for last year’s Rio Olympics, had broken a bone in his foot playing basketball with his mates. Muir, with 57 tests behind him, had been out of action for almost a year, after a hamstring tear was followed by shoulder surgery from a nasty collision in a club match.

Both young players were obviously eager to get back in black, as the team begins a new four-year cycle to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and attempts to put behind them the nightmare of Rio – especially that shattering loss to Germany, who stole the quarterfinal from them, scoring three goals in the final four minutes.

The new Black Sticks coach, Darren Smith – a veteran of 212 hockey internationals for New Zealand – figured the best way to keep Muir and Phillips in the mix while they recovered was to make them the team managers.

It was good therapy, Muir says; warming up with the team, keeping up with their tactics, organising their dinners.

Now Muir is, in Smith’s words, “jumping out of his skin” to return to the field next week, as the Black Sticks head to Malaysia for the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, an international tournament where New Zealand has traditionally done well.

But Phillips will have to wait a while longer. After earning his place back in the side, he reinjured the foot in a club game, and will sit out this series. As frustrating as it is, Smith has told hockey’s whiz-kid that he wants him to be fully fit and firing for the Hockey World League Semi-final in Johannesburg in July, where the Black Sticks aim to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

Hayden Phillips celebrates after scoring a goal against Malaysia during their third place match at the 2016 Sultan Azlan Shah. Photo: Getty Images

Only three Olympians – Arun Panchia, Stephen Jenness and goalkeeper Devon Manchester – will make the trip to Malaysia when they leave on Friday. Veteran forward and Olympic captain Simon Child is also injured, and a number of other heavily experienced Black Sticks are playing in the Belgian and Dutch professional leagues.

But Smith doesn’t see this as a handicap – more an opportunity to blood a band of young players in international hockey, who he hopes will push the old guard for their places.

When those experienced players rejoin the squad next month for a training camp on the Gold Coast, Smith will discuss with them the lessons learned from Rio – where the Black Sticks let a medal play-off slip from their grasp to finish seventh.

“We will talk about 2016, but we need to have the whole group together to do that most effectively,” he says. “I think a lot of good things came out of Rio. There were some good players, playing a nice style of hockey. But we have an opportunity to learn from those players, and those experiences, to find those little areas we can home in on and keep building on.”

While Muir missed out on those Olympics, he believes it’s the right time to talk about what unfolded, especially in the unforgettable quarterfinal where the Germans scored in the final second of the game to win 3-2. “It was a touchy subject straight afterwards, but it gets talked about in a learning sense now,” he says. “I think we’ve definitely moved on, and we can use it as fuel for the fire. The belief that we can beat the best teams in world is definitely there.”

A former head boy and first XI hockey captain of Rosmini College on Auckland’s North Shore, Muir has his sights firmly set on Tokyo 2020. He tore his hamstring while the Black Sticks squad was building up to Rio.

In his first game back, he dislocated a shoulder in a “freak accident”. In an awkward tussle for the ball, another player fell on to his outstretched arm. Muir captained the North Harbour side through the National Hockey League before opting to have shoulder surgery.

For two months, he was “cooped up doing nothing” – except study. Muir is in his sixth year of university; he already has a degree in commerce, but is now studying law. He also has a part-time job in marketing for Red Bull.

“When I was allowed to start running again, it was the first time in my life that I really enjoyed it. There was no pressure, no timeline,” he says.

But his year of medical misfortune wasn’t over: Muir had to undergo a tonsillectomy before the Pakistan series. “I was really starting to worry about my luck,” he says.

Determined to be in peak form at the Azlan Shah tournament, where the Malaysian humidity can turn a game into a war of attrition, Muir has been acclimatising by sitting in a steamy sauna for 30 minutes after his gym sessions. He admits that he has “blacked out” a few times in the heat, but believes it will be worth it.

“I’m fizzing to get back on the field; it’s a year since I played for New Zealand. It’s a new cycle and a completely new start for me. There’s such a new feel to the team, a new group of young players, and a new coach putting his spin on things,” he says. “And there’s a burning desire to succeed.”

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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