The XXI Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia was the last major tournament for many of the participating nations at this year's Vitality Women’s Hockey World Cup, London 2018. As such, it was the ideal opportunity for the players to experience the atmosphere of a big international occasion and to challenge themselves in the testing conditions of a multi-sport event.
We spoke to three players who between them have amassed hundreds of caps and a fair amount of medals. On this occasion, Anita McLaren of New Zealand was sporting the gold medal, Australia’s Emily Smith wore a silver medal around her neck and Maddie Hinch of England was holding a bronze medal.
In less than 100 days, the three teams will be lining up with 13 of the other top teams in the world to contest the greatest prize of all, the Vitality Women’s Hockey World Cup.
For host nation England, the prospect of a home championship is incredibly exciting. Maddie Hinch, England and Great Britain’s goalkeeper and the current FIH Goalkeeper of the Year, summed up the importance of home support.
“The crowds here in Gold Coast have been 5,000 strong, with a lot of them against us. We have been looking around and trying to imagine what it will be like in London. We will have 15,000 people, with the majority of them supporting England. The thought of it sends a real shoot of excitement through me and I can’t wait to get out there this summer.”
While the support will most definitely be at its most vociferous when England take to the pitch, both Australia and New Zealand have a large fan base in the UK and can expect them to turn out in force.
Anita McLaren has played in London many times. “We love playing in London, it is a beautiful city and the hockey facilities are excellent. There is a big Kiwi contingent so we always get a lot of support. You look up and see these pockets of ‘black’ [the official colour of the New Zealand team] in the crowd and you can hear them doing their best to outshout the other supporters.
“And when we are not playing England we get a lot of English support too, which is great,” added the Black Sticks striker.
The Commonwealth Games has given the teams plenty to think about as their preparations gear up towards the London event.
For Australia captain Emily Smith, the experience of playing in front of large, noisy crowds in the Gold Coast was a really important part of her team’s preparations. “A lot of girls have never played in front of these sized crowds before. The pool games are great, they give us a chance to practice our processes and play our game but then the grand final comes around and the extra pressure is huge. It is something that is hard to replicate in training so to have that experience here is really important.”
Australia lost to New Zealand in the final, but the pain of that defeat was something that the Hockeyroos will now use in their preparations. “We will put that feeling under our belt," says Smith. "The disappointment we are feeling now will be a huge motivator for the next couple of months. When we don’t want to do those few extra sprints or things aren’t going well, then we will make sure we use this memory to keep us training hard.”
For Hinch and her England teammates, the important thing was to ensure they finished the Commonwealth Games with a win. To do that, they overturned the pool results to defeat India 2-1. “It was incredibly important that we won our final match at the Commonwealth Games (for bronze) especially after our last tournament where we lost our third/fourth match,” says Hinch.
“As a group, we needed to learn how to win that last game when you are all knackered and need to dig deep. The match wasn’t pretty but it was important to turn things around against India.”
Both Smith and Hinch concede that goal-scoring is something they must improve before they arrive in London. England showed a worrying lack of success from penalty corner conversions, while Australia created huge numbers of scoring opportunities but failed to put them away.
On the other hand, Smith points out that Australia went through 300 minutes of Commonwealth Games action without conceding a goal, while Hinch maintains that the England defence is “world class”.
McLaren was more reticent when discussing her team’s strengths and weaknesses. “No-one is ever perfect, so there will be heaps we will be working on. But we will be stepping up our game,” she said firmly. With that promise and the confidence gained from their Commonwealth Games success, McLaren and her Black Sticks will be certain to be one of the favourites to lift the trophy in London.