The weekend can’t come soon enough. Eyes are on the Dutch, England and Argentina but Pool D’s wide open permutations has set the Vitality Women’s World Cup alive.
All four teams can still progress and three of the four (Australia, NZ and Japan) are fighting to top the pool and go straight through to the quarter-finals.
The margins are tight, every point and, in all possibility, every goal will be important in determining who progresses and who has to play in the, wait for it, pre-quarter-final cross-over elimination games, for finishing second or third.
The stakes at a World Cup are, as you would expect, as high as they get.
The preparation has been extensive and intensive but that of course doesn’t guarantee anything. Part of the appeal of sport is the fact that luck will play its part; whether that be the bounce of the ball or the shot off the post or goalkeeper that goes in or stays out.
Umpiring decisions also come into that category and there will always be, and should be, moments in sport where the interpretation of the umpire determines in what direction the play should go.
That said, the successful and effective introduction of the Video Umpire into top-level hockey has given teams at least one opportunity to question whether or not they’ve been on the wrong end of the stick from a big decision.
Seeing goal, penalty stroke and penalty corner decisions questioned and then overturned is now common place and all teams are aware of the need to use their referral, particularly early in the game, with care.
Critically, with the sheer speed of the game, as well as the congestion and intensity of the attacking circle, it makes absolute sense that on-field umpires have this extra resource to help them get as many of the big decisions correct.
That is why, sensibly, umpires also have the ability to make their own referrals when they sense that something they were initially sure about needs a second look.
With all these points in mind, doesn’t it seem a little bit crazy that the final make-up of Pool D, including which team’s tournament finishes then and there, could come down to a goal that was clearly scored off the back of the stick?
By pure coincidence, this conversation actually started on day one, with Japan’s second goal against Australia. With the umpire quite rightly allowing an excellent advantage instead of awarding a penalty stroke, Akiko Kato swept the ball on her reverse into the goal.
The only trouble was the replay showed that it almost certainly had been hit flush, not even off the edge, but with the whole back of the stick. Given that the game was into the last minute and Australia still had a referral, it seemed strange that they didn’t go the Video Umpire.
Barring the extraordinary, they had nothing to lose and, if successful, they might have just saved a goal which, as it has transpired could be worth its weight, if not in gold, in reaching the quarter-finals.
According to one of the Australian coaching staff, this was a rare self-confessed “brain fade” from the Hockeyroos wonderful goalkeeper Rachel Lynch.
The big question for all umpires out there though is what would the decision have been had the referral been upheld? Back to the penalty stroke or a free hit out?
While bettering your goal difference is one thing, gaining a point from a draw is another level altogether and that is why it would be understandable if Black Sticks coach Mark Hager had a polite word of concern to the Umpire’s Manager about Japan’s second goal in their 2-1 loss to Japan.
With NZ pressing for an equaliser, a speculative aerial was intercepted and played forward to Minami Shimazu who rounded the goalkeeper and, on her reverse, hit the ball into the open goal.
The trouble was, as players and umpires through most grades now know, when the ball had been hit by Shimazu, it had risen off the ground with the tell-tale looped trajectory that was slower than the speed of the swing and which almost always means that it’s been “topped” by the back of the stick.
Despite that, the umpire awarded the goal and although NZ scored four minutes later, Japan held on for a hard fought win.
Now, let me first of all say that none of this is Japan’s fault and nor am I questioning the ability of the umpire. It does however seem crazy and somewhat inconsistent that with the use of video at hand, we are talking about such an important goal being allowed to stand when, had NZ been able to refer it, it would almost certainly have been reversed.
I also take the argument that NZ had played their referral card and lost but back of the stick, just like the ball coming off the foot, is the equivalent of football’s hand ball and whether it’s Diego Maradona or Thierry Henry, we all know the justifiable uproar that has caused over the years.
After watching the extraordinary over-complication of VAR at FIFA’s World Cup, I couldn’t imagine for a second finding myself wondering if hockey should adopt any of their methods but maybe this shows that the VU checking the goal that has been awarded and letting the umpire know if there is a problem isn’t a bad idea.
Again, I’m happy to side with the umpire and say that the speed and angle of the play and the crowd noise has prevented her from seeing and hearing the critical clues of incorrect contact but surely we want goals scored with the correct side of the stick, no matter how close or open the goal is.
The Hockey Paper’s World Cup coverage is supported by St. Bert’s Clothing