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 the two experienced Black Sticks, who are also 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 1000 acres in Pongaroa, in the Tararua district. 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 (with 115 goals) and was top scorer in the world Pro League in 2019 – the last time the Black Sticks played a full season – with her incredible ball striking power up front.
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 says. “Megs is a little younger than me, and coming from different islands, we didn’t really see each other.”
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). And over the past few years, the pair have become great mates off the field.
“We’ve been through some pretty interesting experiences. Like in the heat chamber last year, lying in a pool of sweat,” says Hull, remembering the Black Sticks’ efforts to acclimatise to the heat at the Tokyo Olympics.
“We wanted to hold hands, but I told Megan we could only hold fingers. So we had a little finger hold,” Merry laughs. “There were definitely some dark times in that heat chamber.”
And they’re closer allies on the turf now, as they each fill a shoe of long-time Black Sticks captain, Stacey Michelsen, who’s retired after 12 years at the top of the game.
“It’s a big honour,” says Merry, assuming the mantle in her 10th year with the Black Sticks, after 244 tests.
“A massive privilege,” adds Hull, who has 43 caps, but whose leadership skills were recognised early in her career.
“The co-captaincy is something that’s so under-utilised,” says Merry. “With the way we work, it’s perfect for our team. And it takes a bit of the pressure off.”
Hull: “I could never do this without Liv. She’s an amazing leader.”
Merry: “You actually couldn’t have picked two more different people for this job, but with the same views and values of what we want from this team. That’s why it’ll work so well.”
The pair chat to LockerRoom after a mid-week afternoon training at the National Hockey Stadium in Auckland and a morning at their day jobs. Yes, they both have to work fulltime and train with the national team. (“It’s the reality of being a hockey player,” Hull says.)
Next week, they’ll test their captaincy skills in a four-test home series against Australia. It’s a lead-in to the World Cup in Spain and the Netherlands at the start of July, and the Commonwealth Games at the end of that month.
I’ve asked them to describe their leadership traits.
“We bring very different things to the field,” Merry says. “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 likes to lead by example up front: “I’m more a tough, dogged person – you have to really earn my trust.
“It’s one of my key values as a person to work really hard, and if I’m out there showing that, then I feel like I’m leading in a way that’s best for the team.”
Hull, who’ll call the shots from the back of the field, is 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 says.
“I love people, and I love listening to people’s stories. Everyone brings value to this team.”
Merry chuckles when comparing her more blunt approach with Hull’s convivial nature.
“Whether someone’s been in the team for five minutes or 10 years, Megan is always like ‘Hi, how’s your day?’” she says.
“I’m a bit more ruthless. We’re like good cop, bad cop. Megan will say ‘Liv, we just need to go and thank this person.’ And I’m like ‘Megan we’ll be here all day, mate. We’ve got to wrap it up’.
“We laugh about that. But I think that’s why we work so well. If you put two people in this position who are exactly the same, that’s what you get – same-same.”
“Because we’re such good friends, too, we’re kind of natural in the way we operate,” Hull adds.
“I know I can speak my mind with Liv and she’ll take it on board. And because we have that bond, we’re okay to agree or disagree, and we’ll come up with a pretty good conclusion together.”
“It’s so good to have another ear to listen.” Merry says. “Whether that’s home, work or hockey. And it works both ways.”
Both women moved to Auckland to be part of the Black Sticks hub, and had to find fulltime jobs.
Merry has started a new role an account executive with Twin Agencies, a sales and merchandising company with New Zealand food and beverage brands.
“It’s probably a year too early in terms of my dream job pathway,” she says. “But I’m pretty fortunate they hired me in a very busy hockey year – I think I’ve taken three or four years’ worth of leave in my first six months.”
Hull works in child-care for Educare in Warkworth, half an hour 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 says.
“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.
“They can be tough 12-hour days,” Merry says. “When I leave home in the morning, I’m like a bag lady – I have my hockey bag, my change of clothes bag, my lunch bag, my work bag.”
“It’s a tough balance,” adds 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 recently got in 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 with the team, saying he wanted to take his family home.
On Monday, former Black Sticks men’s coach Darren Smith was named interim head coach to take the team through to the Commonwealth Games.
Merry was excited by the prospect of working with a new head coach.
“I had the same coach for 90 percent of the tests I’ve played [Australian Mark Hager], then we had an interim, then Graham came on board, and we’re in an interim period again,” she says. “It’s exciting because you never know what the next person can bring.
“At the moment we have fantastic people around us – not only in our team, but within our management – so I feel like it will be quite seamless.”
Earlier this year, three assistant coaches were assigned to the Black Sticks women. One of them, former Junior Black Sticks player 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 recent years.
“Verity has done a fantastic job with the culture. Our team is in a totally different place than what it was 12 months ago,” Merry says.
Four-time Olympian and former Black Sticks men’s captain, Shea McAleese, and Hockey New Zealand’s athletes pathway manager, Bryce Collins, are the other two assistants.
“They all complement each other well,” Hull says. “Shea is happy to give the direct line, and Bryce is positive, optimistic and organised.”
With the retirements you’d expect after and Olympics, injuries and other players taking time out from the game, the Black Sticks have lost over 1700 international caps since Tokyo (where New Zealand were knocked out in the quarterfinals).
“We’re definitely aware as we head into these tournaments that our caps numbers are relatively low, and game play is so essential,” Hull says. “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.”
So does the expectation of defending a Commonwealth Games title – won so spectacularly on the Gold Coast four years ago – weigh heavily on this relatively young team?
“Yes, we are reigning champions, but we’re such a different team now, so it doesn’t weigh on our minds,” says Merry, who scored one of the goals in New Zealand’s 4-1 final win over Australia.
“We’ve still talked a lot about what it takes to be a gold medallist again. The key message Megs and I are driving home is consistency. Having the World Cup before the Commonwealth Games is such an opportunity for us to play consistently through to the Games.”
* The Black Sticks play four tests against Australia at the National Hockey Stadium in Albany next week: Tuesday and Thursday at 7pm (on Sky Sport 1) and Saturday and Sunday at 3.30pm (Sky Sport 3).