Photo Credit: Photosport New Zealand
In early 2014, life appeared to be a bed of roses for Stephen Jenness. The Black Sticks striker had recently celebrated his 100th international and been anointed Hutt City Sportsperson of the year.
A trip to Glasgow in July for the Commonwealth Games was a foregone conclusion or was it? A bombshell awaited.
“I was dropped for the first time in my career. I was told there were areas of my game that needed improving like my connection with other strikers. Looking back now I wasn’t playing my best hockey. Perhaps I’d became a little complacent, but I was pretty surprised and disappointed,” Jenness laments.
Worse was to follow. Shortly after the Scottish snub, a shot at goal in a club match went horribly wrong.
“My shoulder popped out after fully swinging my right arm. I’ve dislocated both shoulders twice, but this one was the worst. It was a long recovery,” Jenness rues.
August 14, 2016, New Zealand leads twice reigning champions Germany 2-0 in the Olympic quarter final in Rio de Janeiro. Jenness had long reclaimed his place after a strong showing against Canada. There are five minutes remaining. What happened next was a true Kiwi sporting catastrophe.
"We blew it. Germany scored three times. I don't know what happened. It's still a blur. I've never watched it. It's the biggest disappointment of my career," Jenness laments.
New Zealand was denied the chance to compete for their first Olympic medal since 1976. Germany went onto to claim the bronze medal and Belgium who New Zealand conquered in pool play collected the silver.
“We had to beat Belgium to make the quarter finals. Several of the guys and our coach had played in Belgium so we knew a lot about them. In fact I don’t think we’ve been more prepared for any international I’ve played in than that one. It was a great win which showed what we were capable off,” Jenness reflects.
Remarkably New Zealand, having initially failed to qualify, was granted a place at the Olympics only after South Africa withdrew.
“I took the ball to the corner and tied it up. There was still five minutes to go. I looked at my teammates and they said ‘good idea,’” Jenness laughs when recalling this year's Commonwealth Games semi-final against India on the Gold Coast.
In eerily similar fashion to Rio, New Zealand jumped to a 3-1 lead, including a goal by Jenness, only for it to nearly slip. India pulled a goal back and the Black Sticks were on the retreat, grimly defending.
“There was no way we were losing this time. We were willing to do anything,” Jenness asserts.
Steely resolve and superior ability has yielded Jenness 207 caps and 72 goals. It’s those qualities which has seen Jenness nominated for Sportsman of the Year at the Wellington Hospitality Sportsperson of the Year Awards to be announced on 20 June at the TSB Arena.
Jenness faces stiff competition from World Rugby player of the year Beauden Barrett, World champion Black Sox softballer Joel Evans, Team New Zealand America's Cup winner Josh Junior and swimmer Lewis Clareburt, last year's emerging sportsman winner, who snared bronze in the pool at the Commonwealth Games.
“It’s great to be acknowledged in that company. Hockey is only a minor sport in New Zealand so any recognition is great. There was a bit of disappointment losing to Australia in the final, but at least we were beaten fair and square,” Jenness says.
Jenness is anything but a minor figure in hockey. A product of Hutt Valley High School, Jenness was first selected for the Black Sticks in 2010 at the ripe age of 20.
“I was picked for a four nations tournament in Nottingham with Japan, Germany and Great Britain,” Jenness recalls.
“A couple of younger guys were trialied and from there I was lucky to make the Delhi Commonwealth Games,” he continued.
New Zealand won the bronze medal in India in conditions that were more trying off the field than what they were on the pitch.
“There was a lot of talk about how underprepared India was for the games and when we arrived things weren’t good. It was a case of first in first served for the best spots and relatively speaking our accommodation wasn't too bad when compared to others, but it was pretty eye opening,” Jenness recounts.
Historically Australia has enjoyed superiority over the Black Sticks, but Jenness has been involved in two of New Zealand’s most memories wins against the Kookaburras.
In 2015, New Zealand upset Australia on penalties in the final of the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia. A year later Jenness scored a goal in a 2-1 victory over Australia in Auckland. It was the Black Sticks first success on home soil against their Trans-Tasman rivals since 1967.
“The depth of talent Australia has to choose from makes them very tough to beat. We now have a high performance program with 25 Black Sticks and 10 players in a wider training group. Australia bases their high performance program in Perth and can choose from anywhere between 80 and 100 players. Any win against the Aussies is a big deal,” Jenness explains.
In 2015, Jenness won a National title with Capital and for the past half dozen seasons has spent plied his trade professionally in Belgium where leading talent can command a salary of $90,000 Euros a year.
Jenness is hopeful of making the 2020 Olympics in Japan something he concedes was unthinkable after Rio. However the immediate focus is the World Cup in India in November.
Jenness has four papers to complete in his management degree and plans to play a whole lot of golf when he retires from international hockey. His handicap is currently a respectable seven.
“I started golf started a couple of years ago. A lot of sportsman get hooked on golf and I’m no different. I love it. I’m lucky with my travel, I have been able to play in Malaysia, South Africa, Belgium and a whole lot of courses in New Zealand,” Jenness concludes.
Article by Adam Julian, College Sport Media