Players sank to their knees, both teams did. As temperatures nudged 42C on the pitch, mercury turned to bronze after this breathless encounter; a see-saw, pulsating match ending 4-3 to Great Britain women, who won a third successive Olympic hockey medal.
This was a match which saw five goals in 10 minutes either side of half-time. Britain led 2-0, India rallied with three in four minutes. The final push over the line was delivered by Grace Balsdon firing in GB’s first corner with another blistering strike. The final 12 minutes were then etched with nerves, but under the unflappable captaincy of Hollie Pearne-Webb, their control and game management prevailed.
This GB side has not had it easy since Rio. Yet, they end with a gallant bronze – the rock in defence Laura Unsworth winning a third since London 2012 – a medal which also will bring welcome relief for coach Mark Hager, the Australian who has been dealt a tough hand with injuries, squad form and 18 months away from his family.
“We told ourselves to take a deep breath, we’re fine. We had a bad patch there, but we ride it. We go back out and we go back and we impose our game on them,” Pearne-Webb said of the half-time break which sparked the medal turnaround.
Hager’s side found openings by running from width against India. Their first underpinned this, Ellie Rayer carrying effortlessly to the baseline and her cross-shot pass turned in by Deep Grace Ekka.
Savita Punia was once again forced into action, scuppering three GB shots. When Sarah Robertson found herself unmarked high up in the cirle, the Scot carved an opening on her reverse and rifled past Savita.
A minute later, the dangerous Gurjit Kaur picked an opening through GB’s line runners on her second corner attempt to reduce the arrears. The equaliser from Gurjit’s potent stick was a carbon copy with Maddie Hnch beaten to her left. Three goals in as many minutes.
India’s counter-attacking policy saw the turnaround complete just before half-time, a chaotic moment in GB’s circle seeing the ball inch over Hinch’s line from Vandana Katariya, the goal standing after a referral.
Pearne-Webb, who received a black eye during the Dutch dismantling in the semi-final, then came to the fore in the third quarter with a powerful hit to evade Savita. A rare goal, perhaps her most important of all. “I did wonder, ‘What am I doing in here, why am I here?'” she mused afterwards. Little Matter. Back came India with two more PC chances, Hinch standing tall.
Then, after Britain’s six corner attempts, Balsdon opened her shoulders and found a way through Savita’s legs with a low flick. Hager’s side held on, Izzy Petter taking the ball deep at the death. The hooter sparked a pitch picture of utter joy and sinking dejection.
Yes, the Eves fell agonsingly short of a first Olympic medal, participating in their first Olympics for 36 years. But in a nation where the men’s game has ruled, this was a breakthrough tournament for Sjoerd Marijne’s side. Finally, there could even now be a run where an Indian coach isn’t sacked, with Marijne handing over the ropes to his Dutch assistant Janneke Schopman, India’s analytical coach.
“We didn’t win the medal, but I think we achieved something bigger, and it’s inspiring a country and make the country proud,” said Marijne. “And I’ve shown many messages of people who were saying that, and I think the world have seen another Indian team, and I’m really proud of that.”
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