The women’s hockey World Cup is now at the semi-final stage, but very few people would have predicted the teams that have made it through to the last four.
That said the performances of the Netherlands (the no.1 ranked squad and pre-tournament favourites) have been a class apart from anything else in the competition. 26 goals in three group games, with only two conceded was beyond impressive and their 2-0 success over England last night was far more comprehensive than the scoreline suggested.
England are currently the no.2 side in the world, but their performances in the World Cup suggest they should realistically be ranked several places lower. Alex Danson’s side played reasonably well in patches, and looked defensively solid in the group games, but the attack never really fired, and only averaged a goal a game throughout the tournament.
That is not necessarily a criticism. Winning the gold medal in Rio (as Great Britain) was an amazing achievement, the pinnacle of any athlete’s career; and it is no surprise that the triumph sparked a number of retirements. It would be ridiculous to think that a transitional squad could replicate such success in just two years, but with an Olympic gold medal comes an element of expectation that was always unlikely to be realised … and for all our endeavour, we were outclassed last night.
There are plenty of encouraging signs however, particularly in the defence, where Anna Toman has been the pick of the more recent additions. Sarah Haycroft looks a fine player too, and there are others who will hopefully develop and flourish as the squad prepares for Tokyo – and that is the time when their progress should be judged.
The Netherlands take on Australia for a place in the final … I just can’t see anything but a win for the Dutch.
The other semi-final is intriguing because it features Spain (world ranked 11) against Ireland (16). Spain have done brilliantly to reach this stage, having knocked out Germany in the quarter final – a major shock in a tournament full of surprises. But there is no doubt that Ireland have been the story and the team of this World Cup.
They qualified for the knock-out stages after just two games before a single-goal defeat to England – a result that ironically handed the hosts a much-harder draw - and then upset the odds yet again to defeat India in a penalty shoot-out.
Remember this is a squad that until recently received no central funding and players had to pay for the privilege to represent their country. Their ability, skill (watch Ali Meeke in the shoot-out if you don’t believe me - sublime…), dedication and determination are beyond question, but it is the spirit and attitude they bring to the game that sets them apart from every other side… from the sea of smiling faces singing a rousing rendition of the national anthem through to the wonderful celebrations that greeted Chloe Watkins’s decisive strike.
My head isn’t sure; but the heart says Ireland will beat Spain; and just as I’ve cheered the Ireland netball squad into the world top 20, so I’ll be supporting another totally inspiring group of “girls in green” as they look to create their own piece of sporting history.