Despite claiming twenty-nine golds in London, my personal highlight of the Games was the bronze medal won by the British ladies’ hockey squad. Their performance in defeating New Zealand after a heart-breaking semi-final defeat to Argentina was as courageous as it was emotional; bitter disappointment being replaced just days later by unrestrained joy, which was wonderful to watch.
It was clear that under the inspirational leadership of Kate Richardson-Walsh, something very special was being created. The squad’s skills, desire and determination were never in question, but if there were any lingering doubts about the players’ ability to “get over the line” in the big games, they were quashed in spectacular fashion (albeit in the guise of England) during last year’s EuroHockey Championships when the hosts cancelled out a two-goal last-quarter deficit in the final against the Netherlands, the reigning Olympic and world champions, before comfortably winning the subsequent penalty shoot-out.
The celebrations were truly amazing, and the victory only served to heighten the anticipation for the Olympic tournament which, for Great Britain, got underway at something resembling stupid o’clock our time.
Team GB’s ladies faced a real test in their opening match, with a group clash against an Australian side to whom they had narrowly lost a six-test series in February. Chances of an eventual gold medal wouldn’t be determined by the outcome of this one fixture, but the result was arguably of more importance than the performance, as both sides will surely improve as the tournament progresses.
Despite a bright start from Great Britain, I felt that Australia looked the more dangerous side (occasional misplaced passes apart) for most of the first half, however the goal that separated the sides at half-time came from the team in red….
A long ball out of defence was twice deflected forward (by Shona McCallin and Sophie Bray—I think… it happened so fast) straight to Lily Owsley, who scored with falling backhand flick. It was a wonderfully taken goal, perhaps slightly against the run of play, but to pinch a couple of words from Barry Davies: “Who cares?!”
The second half felt a bit scrappy. Britain forced their first penalty corners, but Australia looked strong at the back. The British defence had also coped well against a skilful Australian attack, and it took a fine Georgina Morgan strike from a penalty corner to finally find a way past the excellent Maddie Hinch and level the scores.
Exactly ten minutes later though, Britain went back in front with another fantastic goal. Laura Unsworth (who would have been my player of the match) pushed the ball forward and Susannah Townsend looked to have laid a goal on a proverbial plate for Alex Danson. Alex’s first touch wasn’t as good as she would have hoped, and it looked as though the chance had gone….
I should have known better. Alex got the ball under control and, despite pressure from the Australian goalkeeper, fired a bullet backhand shot into the net—it was a world-class finish from a world-class player.
Britain held firm in the final quarter to complete a hugely important win. They weren’t at their best, nor should they be; this was the first game of the tournament and they will only get better. That said, they looked a tremendously fit, well-drilled and cohesive unit and the girls will surely gain confidence from restricting Australia to just one penalty corner goal, whist netting twice from open play themselves.
I’m sure the Olympics will throw up some remarkable stories over the next couple of weeks… and maybe the exploits of the GB ladies hockey squad will be one of them; this was certainly the perfect start….