England 2 Australia 1
Lily Owsley recalled the days looking at “Old Joe”, the university clock tower, wondering when Thursday night club training would end. Holly Hunt leapt like a graduate on scoring England’s opener. Lily Walker had even purchased tickets for these Commonwealth Games before her senior call-up.
This was a women’s final where former and current University of Birmingham students combined to master a battle-weary Australia in one of England’s finest performances.
After 24 years and three silvers, England women, inspired by good-luck messages from the Lionesses, won their first Commonwealth Games title in a largely Sunday stroll of a final, beating the four-time champions 2-1. Two open-play, first-half goals in four minutes from Hunt and Tess Howard also paved the way for England’s first major title in seven years in front of a sun-soaked 6,000 sell-out crowd.
It was not supposed to be like this, not for a team who came together only in January. There were nervy moments, though, as Australia mounted late circle penetration before Rosie Malone’s corner-rebound goal 20 seconds from the end.
“A team that good, you have to fight fire with fire and our head coach [David Ralph] said you have to take the first swing and keep swinging,” said Owsley. “If you set off and let them run they will keep on coming. We got ourselves over the line and it was a dominating performance.”
The “front-foot hockey” mantra which Ralph has tried to instil since taking over from Australian Mark Hager came to the fore as they took the game to the Hockeyroos. Corners were also going to be crucial.
Next Olympics looks promising for current GB squad
England had scored 14 (eight against Ghana) from 46 in their previous five games. But, in the end, creativity did for Australia.
Jocelyn Bartram, the Hockeyroos’ brilliant goalkeeper who had helped win World Cup bronze last month, was helpless in England’s opener. Laid on by Flora Peel, another Birmingham alumni, Hunt found herself totally unmarked near the top of the circle. She could barely contain herself scoring in front of “Old Joe”, timing her slap shot to perfection.
England’s record in major competitions post-Olympics has been relatively poor for world hockey’s best-funded programme, due to player turnover and fresh graduates taking time to adapt. Last month’s World Cup performance suggested as much, while they seemed to rely on Owsley or the skilful Sophie Hamilton for creativity. They may not yet have the “give and go” qualities expressed by the superior Dutch, but Paris 2024 looks highly promising for a GB team after this superb gold.
Peel, who joined the programme in January, is one such player. With her stick skills honed from several years in the Dutch leagues, she slapped a shot across goal where Howard’s outstretched stick deflection went into the roof of the net for England’s second. The side were on such a roll that Maddie Hinch did not make her first save until the third quarter. The final quarter had limited chances before England held firm from three late corners with five minutes left. Either Hinch blocked or Fiona Crackles charged down as No 1 runner.
Australia, who have been away for nearly three months after last month’s World Cup bronze, were finally rewarded when Malone beat Hinch from a last-ditch penalty corner. It took one of the tournament’s longest video referrals for the goal to be given, but England soon cared not one jot as “Hockey’s coming home” chants rang out.
“I laughed and thought I must run on the pitch to celebrate and then the goal went in and I thought: ‘oh no, have they just jinxed it?’ But thankfully it has just come home,” said Peel. “We had messages from the Lionesses who said that previous groups of ours had inspired them and they hoped they had done the same for us. They definitely have. It wasn’t quite as long to come home but we’re glad it did.”
The BBC News at Ten moved for Team GB in Rio. Here, a Super Sunday afternoon slot guaranteed more television eyeballs after England women’s netball and cricket semi-final defeats. Yet, despite the Rio profile, hockey attendances are still underwhelming at club level. The sport must now look at how to change this perception over their desire to shift international tickets.
“Hopefully this will keep raising the profile,” added Peel. “You see for the Lionesses what it will do for them. But we have amazing groups of players and altogether we are hoping women’s sport continues to grow.”