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Who can challenge Australia?

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The nine other men’s and women’s teams competing at the sixth hockey competition at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games have a mammoth task on their hands. For the men’s teams the challenge is to wrest the trophy from the unbeaten Kookaburras, while only India, in 2002, has ever managed to stop the Hockeyroos from winning gold at this event.

It is not for want of trying. In 2010. New Zealand women took Australia to a 2-2 scoreline only to lose 4-2 on shoot-out. And it was a similar story in 2014 when England women were leading Australia 1-0 going into the final moments of the game only to conceded a goal and then lose on shoot-out. Australia’s captain Emily Smith was a member of the gold-medal winning squad of 2014 and she recalls the final minutes of the match against England with a wince. “It was unbelievable. We were losing 1-0 with 12 seconds to go and then Jodie (Kenny) scored the equaliser. It was a roller-coaster of emotion because we had thought we had let that one go, then there was the excitement of scoring the equaliser and we were all high-fiving each other, then we had to get composed for the shoot-out.

 

“I still remember the emotional high of that moment and that is one of the things that has kept me going at this level for another four years.” Certainly both England and New Zealand will be hopeful of challenging Australia women’s dominance as both teams are above Australia in the world rankings and have shown good form in recent test matches. New Zealand in particular are high in confidence after finishing second in the Hockey World League Finals in November. Black Sticks head coach Mark Hager said: “We know all teams will arrive well prepared at the Commonwealth Games and we certainly aren’t taking anything for granted, but our expectations on ourselves are very high. “We’ve put our faith in the majority of players who played and finished second at the World League Final, and are confident we have the necessary talent in this side.

“Given our performances over recent years there will rightly be an expectation on us to win a medal and I think it’s healthy to have that pressure, but also knowing we have great support from everyone cheering us on at Gold Coast and back home.” The team is led by Stacey Michelsen and Anita McLaren, who have an astonishing 500 caps between them. The incentive for McLaren to get on the score sheet is also high, she is one short of her 100th goal for New Zealand. Both India men and India women will be hoping for a good showing at the Commonwealth Games. For India captain Rani, the Games are a chance for her team to show how much they have progressed in recent years. “Over the past decade, Hockey India has promoted women's hockey considerably and our facilities are on par with men's hockey. With good infrastructure and playing facilities we are encouraged to perform better and better, the results are evident. We won the 2017 Asia Cup after 14 years and now we are preparing for the prestigious Women's 2018 World Cup in London after earning qualification. Good results are also increasing the popularity of hockey among women and the team is aware that good performances in the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and World Cup this year will only help grow the sport further in India."

 

India men have been silver medallists on the past two occasions, losing 8-0 in 2010 and 4-0 in 2014. The margins might be getting smaller, but do the resurgent Indians have what it takes to overcome the Kookaburras, who are exuding confidence after winning the Sultan Azlan Shah for the tenth time?
Head coach Sjoerd Marijne and captain Manpreet Singh certainly believe so: “This team has been improving with every match,” said Marijne. “While we could not produce a podium finish at the 27th Sultan Azlan Shah Cup 2018, it will have no influence on how we are going to play in Australia and we will be going there with a mindset to win.”

 

“Our first aim is to do well in the group stage because we have some strong teams in our Pool,” added Singh. “It’s extremely crucial to top our table and make the semis but if we do meet Australia in the knockouts, I believe we will be up for a strong challenge.” said the 25-year-old midfielder. Two teams who will be aiming to push for a podium place in the men’s competition are England and Malaysia. England, who took bronze in 2014, have never made a final of the Commonwealth Games and coach Bobby Crutchley and his men are desperate to start performing to their potential. A silver in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, where they lost to Australia, was a sign they are moving in the right direction but England men remain a side that has yet to deliver on a big stage. Malaysia, on the other hand, are a side that has been steadily moving in the right direction. They took fourth at the Hockey World League Semi-Final, silver medallists in the Asia Cup and fourth in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup. They might be ranked 12 in the world but Stephen van Huizen and his men are capable of punching high above their weight.

 

Australia captain Mark Knowles has said that this will be the toughest games ever. “The teams are so evenly matched, I find it hard to know who will be in the top four. You have the usual teams such as New Zealand, India and England but look at Malaysia; they have been doing really well. Then there is Canada – they have a tough, experienced team. Those guys have been together a long while. Pakistan will always provide a challenge. And I haven’t even mentioned South Africa, who always bring a tough mentality to each game. I could probably name them all.” Both Australia men and women will go into these Games with high hopes of retaining the titles they won in 2014 and, with the men in particular, you would be hard pushed to bet against at least one Australian gold medal here, but there will be some age-old rivalries out on the turf and, as Australia women’s head coach Paul Gaudoin points out: “that brings out the best in everyone.”

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