By Rod Gilmour
So long, Olympic champions! The Great Britain women’s team set off for their first Pro League matches on Wednesday evening, a campaign which will take in three countries and their longest trip outside of the Olympic Games.
The squad travelled out to Christchurch alongside their male counterparts ahead of Hockey Pro League double header fixtures against New Zealand and Australia, before the women move on to China for a one-off clash on Feb 23.
This trip will be the first time that incumbent Australian coach Mark Hager, appointed full-time earlier this month, sees his new batch of players in action.
The GB squad features a 20-strong team, with changes made once again from their last campaign at the Champions Trophy.
It is understood that the highly-rated Hager didn’t choose the squad, while he is expected to take charge in time for the European legs once he has got to know the players. It is also believed that Hager, 54, will live full-time in the UK for his new role.
Great Britain’s arrival in New Zealand could come at an awkward time, with the independent review, launched last year after a negative team environment surfaced within New Zealand hockey and which centres on Hager’s tenure, expected shortly.
Reports suggest that the findings could be released before GB’s first match on Feb 8.
It is hoped that the drawn-out saga – which has also seen problems emerge within other high performance sports in New Zealand – can then be put to bed and leave Hager to focus on Olympic qualification with GB women.
The Hockey Paper has spoken to a number of athletes and hockey insiders who have worked or know Hager and the belief is that GB Hockey has employed a stand-out figure following his near 10-year tenure with the Black Sticks.
Several insiders believe that Hager, a formidable forward during his playing days with the Kookaburras, was wrongly thrust at the centre of a negative culture filtering into New Zealand hockey, following several player allegations which emerged after New Zealand’s World Cup exit last summer. Subsequently, former players showed their support for Hager.
For now, Hager will get to know a number of new faces in Oceania. Holly Hunt, Holly Munro and Lizzie Neal will likely make their international debuts, while Tess Howard retains her place after impressing at the Champions Trophy.
Hollie Pearne-Webb will captain the side, while three players, including Alex Danson, are still recovering from concussion. Other notable absentees from the squad include Laura Unsworth, Susannah Townsend and Sophie Bray.
Acting head coach David Ralph said: “It’s a wonderful opportunity for an exciting team to showcase what they are capable of, to perform against some of the best teams in the world, and set us on our path as GB for the qualification process for the Olympics.
“We’re in this sport to play in big events, every one of these games is very important, we’re going into their back yard and we’re excited about delivering on the pitch.
“The FIH Pro League is incredibly important on two fronts. Firstly as an event in itself and a revolution for the sport. Secondly, this year it plays a key part in Olympic qualification so we’re very excited about playing our first games in the tournament.”
Hager, who featured at the 1988 Olympics, will meet up with the squad in New Zealand ahead of the first game against, ironically, the Black Sticks. According to Great Britain Hockey, he will share coaching responsibilities with Ralph and Kevin Johnson.
GB women’s squad
Giselle Ansley (Eng), Grace Balsdon (Eng), Nikki Cochrane (Sco), Emily Defroand (Eng), Sarah Evans (Eng), Tess Howard (Eng), Holly Hunt (Eng), Sarah Jones (Wal), Hannah Martin (Eng), Holly Munro (Eng), Lizzie Neal (Eng), Lily Owsley (Eng), Hollie Pearne-Webb (captain, Eng), Suzy Petty (Eng), Jo Hunter (Eng), Ellie Rayer (Eng), Sarah Robertson (Sco), Erica Sanders (Eng), Amy Tennant (Eng), Anna Toman (Eng).