Jo’Burg, Brussels and London Provide Stage For Hockey’s Finest
Pictures courtesy of Frank Uijlenbroek (WSP) and Yan Huckendubler (PAHF)
Many of the world’s top teams will be viewing the next few months as a golden opportunity to seal qualification for the 2018 World Cups.
HWL Semi-Finals offer six automatic qualification spots, plus the chance for the fourth placed teams to also seal qualification early in the World Cup cycle. The first three placed teams at the two HWL events will qualify for next year’s blue riband competitions and, depending upon their world ranking, the fourth placed teams may also emerge from the HWL Semi-Finals clutching a qualification.
The two men’s HWL Semi-Final events are taking place in London, England (15-25 June) and Johannesburg, South Africa (8-13 July), while the women’s events are running in Brussels (21 June - 2 July).
For India men and England women, the qualification process is a formality as they will automatically qualify for the respective World Cups as host nations, but even so, both teams will be looking to gain momentum with some strong performances under their belts.
So here is a quick look at a selection of the teams and their prospects in the forthcoming events.
Men’s HWL Semi-Finals London
Competing nations: Pool A: Argentina, China, Korea, England and Malaysia.
Pool B: India, Netherlands, Pakistan, Scotland and Canada.
Argentina men have moved to the number one spot in the world rankings and they will be looking for a much better experience in London than their last visit here – a 10th place finish in the 2012 Olympic Games. This is a very different team, with a very mindset and Carlos Retegui and his side will be determined to show the world that they are the number one ranked team for a reason.
Los Leones will not have it all their own way however. Bobby Crutchley is the England coach and he will be determined to show that his team has bounced back after a disappointing Olympic campaign. He has a new look squad and a new look coaching team, with former England and GB international Russell Garcia appointed as assistant coach.
India are another team who are looking to put a dent in Argentina’s confidence. The Asian champions are moving up the world rankings and determined to add a HWL gold medal to the HWL bronze they won in the 2015 edition of the event.
Determined to stop their slide down the world rankings and get back to winning ways will be the Netherlands. Coach Max Caldas is not used to being out of the medals, so expect the Dutch to be putting on a show in London - scene of their emphatic EuroHockey gold medal win in 2015.
One team that is getting used to competing in the big leagues is Canada men. The team achieved a fourth place finish in the 2015 HWL Semi-Finals, effectively booking their berth to Rio 2016 in the process. They also qualified for the HWL Finals where, they would concede, they encountered a huge learning curve – finishing in last place after losing all their matches.
Head coach Anthony Farry is determined that the past two season’s experiences will provide a platform for his team to move forwards. Playing the top ranked teams, even if they have lost the games, has provided the Canadian players with a wealth of experience and, as Farry points out, at the HWL Semi-Finals last time around, the team knows they can perform well when it counts.
Farry is a coach with a clear strategy that his players have all bought into. Players and coach talk about “continuing to build on our core concepts/principle in training so we try to make sure we are good at what we do.”
The Canadian team’s preparation will be tough and focused. “Training, training and more training,” says Farry. The team is travelling to Europe early to get a few practice matches against France – something that will get the travel out of their legs and acclimatise them for a European summer.
With so many players now joining clubs across the globe, there is an increasing homogenisation of styles. Many of the Canadian players have competed in Europe or Asia. Farry says that among the teams of similar rankings, there is not a great difference in the way the game is played. His aim is to get his players performing with the consistency and level of ball control that the very top teams display.
Canada went to the 2015 HWL Semi-Finals as the sixth ranked nation and came away with a fourth place finish. This year, they are the fifth ranked team, and to qualify for the World Cup they need to repeat that feat of finishing two places higher than their ranking. Farry knows that his team must be at their best to get the result they desire but he also knows that his team have a knack of delivering when it matters most.
Men’s HWL Semi-Finals Johannesburg
Competing nations: Australia, Egypt, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa and Spain.
Defending HWL champions, the Kookaburras have spent the past few months making tweaks to their squad in preparation for the HWL Semi-Finals. Returning to the team for the first time in 2017 at the Sultan Azlan Cup was veteran Eddie Ockenden, along with Dylan Wotherspoon who both returned from a stint playing in Europe, Matt Swann made his international come-back after rehabilitating from a broken foot suffered in mid-2016 and 2014 Commonwealth Games gold medallists Andrew Charter and Andrew Philpott both made returns to the squad after time away.
Kookaburras head coach Colin Batch said: “The team we selected for Azlan Shah was slightly different to the team who competed in Darwin (in a test series against Pakistan); the reason being that we would like to give as many players as possible the opportunity to show their ability at an international level before we make the final team selection for the World League Semi-finals.
“The players that came back in are long standing Kookaburras, and we wanted to see them play in the team structure that we have as a result of new players being selected to the 2017 squad.”
While the Kookaburras are looking to return to winning ways, Belgium will be determined to build on an Olympic silver medal and a HWL silver medal from the 2015 event. The talented Red Lions are an exciting blend of experience in the shape of captain John-John Dohmen and prolific goal scorer Tanguy Cosyns and dynamism of players such as Arthur Van Doren and Thomas Briels.
Ireland were the surprise package of the 2015 season, and while the Green Machine will be looking to build on their recent success, the team that may take their place as the great unknown could be Japan. Building for Tokyo 2020, Japan won the HWLR2 event in Trinidad and Tobago and, in Kenta Tanaka, they have a genuinely world class player.
Women’s HWL Semi-Finals Brussels
Competing nations: Pool A: China, Korea, Netherlands, Italy and Scotland.
Pool B: Australia, Belgium, New Zealand, Spain and Malaysia.
The big four in Brussels will be Netherlands, Australia, Spain and New Zealand, with the Netherlands the team with the most to prove.
Silver medals in EuroHockey 2015, the 2016 Olympics and a fifth place finish in the previous World League Finals are all factors that add up to a very dangerous Netherlands team. Coach Alyson Annan is not used to coming second and neither are her players. The loss of world class players such as goalkeeper Joyce Sombroek, inspirational captain Maartje Paumen and forwards Naomi van As and Ellen Hoog would leave many nations scrabbling for replacements – in Holland, the replacements are lining up.
Can New Zealand progress beyond a semi-final is the question on many observers’ lips. The Black Sticks perform so strongly and so effectively in every major tournament they enter and then they tend to fall at the last hurdle. In a side that boasts speed, strength, courage and athleticism, the ability to see a tournament all the way through is the one chink in their arsenal. Brussels could prove a happy hunting ground for Mark Hager and his team.
Spain are a nation that are improving with every tournament. They qualified for the Olympics in Rio and made it as far as the quarter-finals. Coach Adrian Lock has been given time to develop this time and, in Georgia Oliva, he has a midfielder and captain who can inspire her team to greatness.
The Asian pair of China and Korea will always prove a problem to teams seeking to play an attacking style of hockey. Both sides shut up shop and defend with a rigid discipline, relying on fast breaks to put the opposition under pressure. In a tournament where a top three finish is enough to qualify for the main prize, expect at least one of the Asian teams to be competing for podium places.
Women’s HWL Semi-Finals Johannesburg
Competing nations: Argentina, Chile, England, Germany, India, Ireland, Japan, Poland, South Africa and USA.
This event could be a real tussle between two PAHF rivals – USA and Argentina – and two European giants – England and Germany. That is not to rule out the threat of India, Ireland, Japan, Poland and Chile, but on current form and with so much experience in their ranks, it will be no surprise to see the podium places going to three of the top four ranked nations.
Chile women were the surprise package in the HWL R2 event held recently in West Vancouver and they will be hoping that is also the case in Jo’Burg. They entered the tournament ranked 20th in the world and beat the higher ranked host nation Canada in a tense 1-0 match as well as close rivals from South America, Uruguay. Chile eventually lost to the top ranked team India, but only after a 1-1 draw in the final: the match was then decided on penalty shoot-out.
Manuela Urroz has been a key member of the Chile national squad since she first pulled on the shirt of the Diablos eight years ago. She plays her club hockey in Belgium but one of her ambitions is to make hockey the number one sport in Chile.
Looking back on the HWL R2 event in Canada, Urroz says: “I think the tournament was great for us. We won against teams that are not easy to beat like Canada and Uruguay and we drew in the final against India, who had played at the 2016 Olympics. We worked hard as a team, defending our own circle really well and scoring goals in every game.”
Teammate Camila Caram adds the next few months will be intense for the Chile team. The coaching staff have identified areas that need improvement based on those performances in Canada and, with the entire squad living in or around Santiago, training has really ramped up. “Everyday we train a minimum one shift, some days two. As we have only two months, we wont be getting much in the way of international matches. Maybe one small tour to Argentina, as we are lucky to have them as neighbours.”
Like many nations who are ranked outside the top 10 teams, Chile’s players are mostly amateur, with jobs or studies jostling for a proportion of their time. Urroz has been playing her domestic hockey in Belgium, where she is looked after as a professional athlete, but for some of the players it is a difficult balance between studies, work and hockey. As Urroz says, when it comes to tournaments, such as the HWL Semi-Finals, this puts an even bigger strain on a player’s life. The team leaves for South Africa 10 days ahead of the tournament starting and then they have a further 10 days of intense competition before returning to Chile. That adds up to more than three weeks of time spent travelling and living out of hotel rooms.
“We can travel for many weeks when there is a tournament,” says Urroz. “And everyone has to arrange their lives around that. But, even though it can be hard, we are a committed bunch and that doesn’t detract the focus of the team from our long-term objectives.”
The beauty of the Hockey World League is that the teams get the chance to play national squads that they do not meet on a regular basis. The HWLR2 final against India will have been one of the few occasions that the Chile players have faced an Asian team, but that experience will stand them in good stead when they face Japan and India again in South Africa. Among their other opponents are England, who as Great Britain are reigning Olympic champions, plus the Olympic bronze medalists Germany. The presence of PAHF rivals USA and Argentina will also pose a challenge to Chile – these are teams they know well and will be very aware that they haven’t beaten either side in a major tournament.