The beauty of the Commonwealth Games is the prospect of compelling match-ups between nations that rarely play each other. It is these scenarios where acts of ‘giant killing’ can take place and players who normally compete in front of a handful of spectators suddenly find themselves in the role of hero, with an audience of thousands.
It is an event where the world number one side can find themselves playing a team ranked 20th or lower in the FIH Hero Hockey World Rankings. Such will be the case when Australia men (WR:1) take on Scotland (WR: 23) in Pool A, or New Zealand women (WR:4) face Ghana (WR:30).
And yet, while the higher ranked teams should be expected to win with ease, that is often far from the case. A different style of play, a different pace to the game, players doing the ‘unexpected’ – these are all factors that can cause disruption to the well-oiled machines of the higher ranked teams.
We spoke to three coaches of nations ranked outside the top 10 to find out how preparations for the Games have gone so far. Zak Jones is head coach to Wales men, who currently sit at 24 in the rankings. He is confident that his squad are traveling to Australia’s Gold Coast in their best ever physical state.
For Jones, one problem in preparations has been contact time. He says: “We have been preparing ourselves as best we can, despite limited contact time.” Jones explains that the players also have jobs or are students and there is not enough budget to allow for full-time athletes. Despite this, the athletes have been following intensive strength and conditioning programmes and have also played a number of test matches against higher ranked opposition such as Spain and France. All of which has put Jones and his men into a very positive mood ahead of their opening game against Pakistan on 5 April.
“Our performances over the past few months means the squad will go into the tournament not only looking forward to the challenge of playing against some of the world’s top teams but also believing that we can truly compete. You will see a very humble, proud and passionate team, who will look to play a positive brand of hockey,” says Jones.
For Sheldon Rostron and South Africa women (WR: 14), the Commonwealth Games is a great opportunity to pit themselves against top opposition and regain the top 10 status they enjoyed a few years ago. A secondary motive is to use a good performance at the Commonwealth Games to send a clear message to the National Olympic Association that South Africa hockey is ready to compete at Olympic level after missing out in 2016.
“This event will allow us to prove our capacity and capabilities as a team with the hope of qualifying for Tokyo 2020,” says Rostron. “Missing the past Olympics has damaged the opportunity for the team to be in the top 10 and we want to ensure that we can prevent this from happening again by delivering on their requirements and expectations.”
To prepare for the Commonwealth Games, South Africa women have played a number of tough matches against some of the country’s top men’s teams. Financial constraints make it difficult for the national squad to travel overseas for test matches but Rostron is happy that regular match ups against the men have been very beneficial.
“We have been able to put good programmes in place and still create a good training environment,” says the coach, who took control of both the men’s and women’s national squad as they chased successfully World Cup qualification in 2017.
“We have had multiple trainings and matches against men’s teams, allowing us to see both the progression as well as areas we still need to grow in. I think it would be naive to make statements on winning medals or finishing in the top three as teams. We simply want to perform well and to become better.”
Our third interview was with the charismatic coach of Malaysia women, Dharma Raj Abdullah. He admits that his recent experiences with the national women’s team have proven an eye-opener.
“The FINTRO Hockey World League Semi-Finals (in Brussels) were an eye opener for the players and even me. I have been coaching men’s teams all my life and had no clue how strong women’s teams were. We saw the standard required to be at this level and we realised how much more we needed to do if we were to match the top teams.”
So Dharma Raj and his team returned to Malaysia and started to work on a number of aspects to their game. This has included a lot of gym and speed work to increase the squad’s fitness levels and a lot of attention on specialist roles, such as developing a world class drag flicker.
“We have a tough group in the Commonwealth Games, with England, India, South Africa and Wales,” says Raj. “So I am more interested in seeing how much we have improved after 10 months of intensive training rather than where we finish.”
The Commonwealth Games gets underway on 5 April. Follow the action at www.fih.ch and through our social channels where we will post regular updates and reports.
Tickets for some matches at the XXI Commonwealth Games are still available. Click here to find out more