Saturday, June 15, 2024

Great Britain hockey teams aim to weather Olympic qualifier storms

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Great Britain Hockey will hope that a planned power cut at its Bisham Abbey headquarters on Friday will be replaced by a surge of optimism, crowd backing and momentum when its men’s and women’s teams face crucial Olympic qualifier double header matches this weekend.

Both teams will watch the Rugby World Cup final in the morning, in various degrees of preparation, before venturing out at a Lee Valley venue for two matches in which GB will be favourites to prevail. The weather is not set to be kind, which will further favour the hosts against Chile women and Malaysia men respectively.

Yet, judging by the new Olympic qualification format, these winner-takes-all matches won’t be easy. Holland found it tough going against Pakistan in their opening 4-4 draw before advancing, the Hockeyroos had a slight wobble also in their opening game against lowly Russia. The winner between Spain and France was evenly split all the way until the final hooter. Unless you’ve bypassed social media this week, we all know what happened in the Canada and Ireland men’s match. Meanwhile self-funded Canada women will be up for the challenge this weekend on Ireland’s pop-up pitch.

So far all the home teams have come through to book their Tokyo tickets and yet the players sense some nerves, having watched events unfurl across the globe last weekend.

“I’ve been part of the training squad prior to Beijing where we had to qualify,” goalkeeper George Pinner said this week. “I remember it being a four-team tournament and ultimately it came down to a one-game match against India. Four years ago for us it came down to one match against Pakistan. This is a bit different. There are no other games, it’s two games that matter against Malaysia.

“The Pro League has prepared us for one-off matches but what’s at stake, especially when you see how tight they are and momentum has swung from one to the other, there have been a few nerves.”

The rugby World Cup final, then, will be a welcome distraction for both teams. “Seeing England lift the World Cup, what better motivation have you got before a big game?” added Pinner. “We have to make sure that it has a positive impact on us for later in the day. It won’t be a pub atmosphere with everyone screaming and wasting energy but hopefully it will be a great day for English sport.”

The GB men’s side, missing Ashley Jackson this weekend through injury, have featured at every Olympic Games since 1984 and forward Sam Ward, who missed December’s World Cup, realises the importance of this weekend.

“It’s massive. One of the biggest things of all is the pressure that everyone seems to be under,” he said.

Great Britain hockey
Adam Dixon, centre, will lead GB against Malaysia

GB trained midweek at a windswept Lee Valley before returning on Friday. “You can leave the environment and take your mind off and you’re not in that intense atmosphere,” added Ward on Wednesday. “Looking at the games from the weekend, you’ve got to be prepared for anything that may hit you.

“Malaysia will play fast, counter attacking hockey like all of his [coach Roelant Oltmans] sides have. On top of that, they will have some good penalty corner threats.”

Chile women will also have several dangerous options from set plays against the Olympic champions. The two teams have never played each other in a Test environment, although did play at Bisham a few years ago.

As with the men, the women’s side are wary of the world No 18 side given the status of these one-off games.

“We’re not going in there thinking we will roll Chile over,” said Anna Toman, who has played in every GB and England squad since her debut in 2017. “We are treating it as two games and anything can happen. We will have to keep our focus across the weekend.”

GB women will be aiming to bounce back in their first major match since England’s  8-0 hammering to the Dutch in late August. The team then disbanded as an England side, coach Mark Hager has picked three Scots and a Welsh player in his GB squad, while players have spoken about growing stronger from that Antwerp defeat.

We featured Chile’s Devils in our latest print edition

That includes Tess Howard, who revealed to The Hockey Paper in our current issue that she played over half the Dutch match with a broken hand. “I couldn’t leave my team-mates out there fighting in that game one man down,” she said. “I neglected the fact that I was probably not okay so I kept going.”

Cleared to return this month, she said of the Chile matches: “Our mental preparation has been stellar and it has to be. It’s not us fighting for two games, it’s much bigger. There’s a lot riding on it but it is just two hockey games.”

Defeat would severely curtail Great Britain’s funding for the Paris 2024 cycle, having been awarded £17.1 million leading up to Tokyo, while it would also heighten the call for centralised players to have more contact time with their domestic clubs given the lack of success at European tournaments. Of this weekend’s squad, three Olympians are unattached with clubs: Maddie Hinch, Susannah Townsend and Shona McCallin, while captain Hollie Pearne-Webb is not a regular starter for Surbiton due to her work with Defra and accountancy exams.

Crucially, however, the quartet make up seven Rio Olympians still in a squad searching for a much-needed run of form and consistency. (Since Rio, GB women have won only six of 32 matches, while England have won 50 per cent of their 42 games). Yet, these are also experienced, big game players who have tasted European and Olympic success. Coupled with the young, bright talent coach Hager has picked, along with an attack-minded philosophy, there is plenty to relish along the road to Tokyo, a path they last failed to negotiate 15 years ago.

Saturday: GB women v Chile, 2pm
GB men v Malaysia, 4:30pm

Sunday: GB women v Chile, 12pm
GB men v Malaysia, 3pm
Live: BT Sport 

This article was brought to you by The Hockey Paper, on-sale regularly via subscription in print or digital
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