Starting tomorrow Sunday in South Africa, the BDO Champions Challenge I starts off the busiest period in 2009 international hockey, two months packed with 6 tournaments - but the Cape Town event is the only women's competition to be played before the start of the World Cup year.
Originally an 8 nation, 2 pool competition, the tournament suffered a blow when Korea withdrew at short notice, and no replacement could be found, reducing the event to seven participating teams. In an adapted format, a first round of matches will now be played with one pool of four (pool A) and one pool of three (pool B), in which each team will play each other once. The competition will then enter a second round of pool matches, with a medal round pool of four team competing for the first to fourth places, and a non-medal round pool of three teams competing for the 5th to 7th places in the final ranking.
The three top-ranked teams in the tournament, Japan, Spain and New Zealand, ranked 6th, 7th and 11th in the world, are the favorites to contest the medal play-offs, with either host country South Africa or Azerbaijan expected to join them in the medal round, while Italy and Chile, ranked 16th and 17th in the world at the moment, would have to lay down a surprise performance to edge out on of their contenders and make it into the top 4.
Looking closer, the world ranking may not be the best indicator of what to expect from the squads competing here however - Japan is ranked ahead of Spain for example courtesy to their Asia Cup title from 2007, compared to Spain's fourth place finish in Europe from last August, and last year's Champions Trophy participation, despite Spain finishing three places ahead of Japan in last year's Beijing Olympic Games. While Spain however has maintained a compact squad, slowly building young players into an established squad with the only significant absence their outstanding goalkeeper Chus Rosa, Japan have suffered an exodus and are fielding 10 uncapped players in Cape Town - compared to 4 uncapped players in all other teams together.
New Zealand seem to be considerably inferior to Spain and Japan, looking only at the numbers, ranked four and five places behind their contenders respectively, but taking into account their recent Oceania Cup title, the second continental championship in a row they wrenched from the mighty Australians' hands, things do not look quite that bleek. Caught in the middle of a squad re-build, New Zealand bring the youngest squad of the tournament to Cape Town but an infusion of exciting new talent such as Gemma Flynn, Sam Harrison, Elizabeth Gunson and Katie Glynn nonetheless makes the Black Sticks a power to be reckoned with.
The South African hosts will be able to draw on a lot of experience compared to the competition at almost 68 caps on average, as well as the expected strong support from the home crowd. After their 11th place finish at the 2008 Olympics, just edging out New Zealand to avoid the red lantern, the team took the Africa Cup of Nations by storm in July, securing continental gold and direct qualification for the 2010 World Cup in Rosario by winning 4 out of 4 matches - with a goal difference of 27:1. The opposition in Cape Town should be a much more difficult test for the team however, and grouped with Japan, Azerbaijan and Chile in Round 1, the home team will have to come out strong from their Day 1 encounter with Chile to have a shot at the medal pool.
Azerbeijan are also rejuvenating their team, introducing a number of new faces, but still field the oldest squad in South Africa: at 26,56 years average age, the players are an average 4 years older than New Zealand's representatives. Another indicator of the squad rebuild is the fact that the Azeris have retained only 3 naturalized Korean players, half the numbers they had two years ago. Under their still relatively new Korean coach Jae Hong Jeon, the team finished 6th in the European Nations Championships in August, and should not be underestimated.
Italy look on an upswing with a good second place finish at last year's Olympic Qualifier in Victoria and another runner-up spot in this year's European Nations Trophy which secured them promotion to play among Europe's top 8 women's teams in 2011 but may find their lack of experience an obstacle against the strong opposition at this BDO Champions Challenge I: at 28 caps on average, the Azzure boast fewer than half as many caps as the rest of the teams. Pitted against Spain and New Zealand in the first round's three team pool B, the Italians are in for a start with a bang, and may well be setting their sights on the second round prematurely.
Chile were only called up to participate in the tournament as a replacement after the USA declined the invitation, but certainly have the potential to snatch away points from their opponents here in Cape Town. Around an experienced core of players like Daniela and Paula Infante, Javiera Villagra and Carolina Varas, Chile have assembled a young but solid squad, including standout defender Sofia Walbaum, who at 20 years of age is an integral part of the Chilean team, nick-named Las Rojas (the Reds), but they are missing some regulars who are on college scholarships in the USA.
To follow all the action from Cape Town, please visit our tournament site www.bdochampionschallenge1women.sportcentric.com
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