Host nation Australia is under a lot of pressure going into the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. Firstly there is the pressure that comes from playing in front of family and friends. Then there is the stress of living up to the success of previous Commonwealth Games.
Australia men are the undisputed champions of the Commonwealth Games. Since hockey was introduced to the Games in 1998, the Kookaburras have won gold on every occasion. 4-0 versus host nation Malaysia in 1998, 5-2 against New Zealand at Manchester in 2002, a 3-0 victory over Pakistan in Melbourne in 2006, 8-0 against India in Delhi in 2010 and 4-0 over India at the 2014 edition.
For the women, it is an almost unblemished record. They have beaten England twice – a resounding 8-1 in 1998 and a much closer shoot-out win in 2014. They didn’t make the final in 2002, but bounced back to beat reigning champions India in 2006 (1-0) and then New Zealand in a close match that went to shoot-out in 2010.
As women’s head coach Paul Gaudoin says: “Our record is very good. How do we explain it? Well the opponents all offer different styles of play but the commonality lies with us. Every Australia team, men’s or women’s, has the desire to be successful at every tournament and for these Games it is no different.
“There is a culture of hardworking athletes who will always play out the whole match. We never look to draw it, we are an aggressive attacking style of people and that potentially helps us deal with some big events in the Commonwealth Games. We will be looking for a win that we can translate into Olympic and World Cup success.”
Women’s captain Emily Smith acknowledges the effect the crowd might have upon the players: “There is a lot of pressure on us because of our previous successes and being in front of a home crowd but, once we get the first game under our belt, the nerves will settle and we can build into the tournament. I am really proud to be playing in front of family and friends. To actually have them in the crowd will be very special as they normally watch from afar. I know once the anthem gets played then our thoughts will turn to the game.”
Smith was a member of the gold-medal winning squad of 2014 and she recalls the final minutes of the match against England with a wince. “It was unbelievable. We were losing 1-0 with 12 seconds to go and then Jodie (Kenny) scored the equaliser. It was a roller-coaster of emotion because we had thought we had let that one go, then there was the excitement of scoring the equaliser and we were all high-fiving each other, then we had to get composed for the shoot-out.
“I still remember the emotional high of that moment and that is one of the things that has kept me going at this level for another four years.”
These Games will be an especially emotional voyage for Australia’s Mark Knowles, who has announced his retirement after these Games.
“I guess you could say this is all a massive achievement. It is just one of those dreams you have. I was lucky to play in Melbourne as a 22-year-old and now, here I am at the other end of my career, playing a very different role. It has taken a lot of hard work but mostly I am just proud to be here knowing my family will be watching.”
Knowles has gold medals from three previous Commonwealth Games, and is one of just six Kookaburras to pass the 300 cap mark. Each previous Games holds special memories for the Kookaburra skipper.
“2006 Melbourne was amazing to play in and to win a gold medal was just an amazing moment for us.
“2010 in Delhi was one I will never forget. There were 15-16,000 Indians in the stadium and the noise was deafening. I have never heard anything so loud. For the first few minutes India were totally all over us. I think we were so over-awed we just kept giving them the ball. Then we settled and by half-time we were 4-0 up and that quietened the crowd. But it was 46 degrees on the field and I honestly think it was one of the hardest games I have ever played in my life.
“Glasgow 2014 was part of an unbelievable period of dominance for our Kookaburra team. We had just won the World Cup and we stood up and delivered in Glasgow too. I was flag bearer for that event, so that meant the world to me.”
Looking ahead to the Gold Coast, Knowles sees this as the toughest Games ever. “The teams are so evenly matched, I find it hard to know who will be in the top four. You have the usual teams such as New Zealand, India and England but look at Malaysia; they did well in the Asia Cup, the Hockey World League Semi-Final and the Azlan Shah Cup. Then there is Canada – they have a tough, experienced team. Pakistan will always provide a challenge. I could probably name them all.”
For Paul Gaudoin, the tournament is about more than medals. “This is a wonderful tournament to play in. There are some teams we know well but there are others who we will never play in an Olympic cycle. That allows us to explore the global style of hockey. There are also an old rivalries, against England, New Zealand and us that brings out the best in us all.
“We see this as an opportunity to ‘sell’ the Kookaburras and hockey to the world on a big platform. We like to invest heavily in the success because it will help spread the sport to new audiences, not just in Australia but globally.”
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