HWL Finals: It's anybody's game

The third edition of the tournament, would be the culmination of the HWL. Come 2019, the FIH would embark on yet another ambitious project, the Pro League, in an attempt to raise interest and take the game around the world. As such, any team that wins the title here on December 10 would forever be the last winner of the tournament.

Australian hockey players at a training session on the eve of the Hockey World League Finals in Bhubaneswar, on Thursday.   -  PTI

In terms of experimenting with the structure and calendar of the sport, hockey has few competitors. The Hockey World League (HWL) was yet another experiment by the International Hockey Federation (FIH) to spread the sport beyond its traditional strongholds in Asia and Europe.There was some success, but as the top eight in the world line-up for the finale of the tournament at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar, the list has the usual suspects fighting it out for ranking points, boasting rights and little else.

This, the third edition of the tournament, would be the culmination of the HWL. Come 2019, the FIH would embark on yet another ambitious project, the Pro League, in an attempt to raise interest and take the game around the world. The HWL would still exist, at the lower levels, but the third and fourth rounds — or the semifinals and Finals that include the elite teams — would no longer be held. As such, any team that wins the title here on December 10 would forever be the last winner of the tournament.

VIEW: How the teams stack up ahead of the Finals

Host India would definitely want to be that team. Beyond all expectations, the team won bronze in Raipur in the previous edition in 2015, defeating the Netherlands in the shootout. That was its first world-level medal in 33 years. None of the players who won it had been born back in 1982, when India won bronze at the Champions Trophy. This time, with several Junior World Cup winners included in the side, there would be even fewer who can relate to the glorious past.

 

That may well be a blessing. The youngsters, instead of carrying the burden on past, come in with the confidence and cockiness of achievement. Mandeep Singh, Gurjant Singh, Varun Kumar, Dipsan Tirkey, Harmanpreet Singh, Sumit Walmiki — all these players have impressed in the few
outings with the senior side but, more importantly, have experienced what winning a title on home soil feels like. It’s an experience they would want to repeat.

Along with the experienced minds in the side including Birendra Lakra, the local favourite and the biggest hero in the sport from the State after Dilip Tirkey, coach Sjoerd Marijne would be looking to go one better than Raipur. His players would be tested, much more than they were at the recent Asia Cup where they were expected to win anyway, but he would be under as much scrutiny.

 

Having replaced compatriot Roelant Oltmans in not-so-smooth circumstances, Marijne had a winning start at the Asia Cup. The Dutchman was pragmatic enough to tone down the rhetoric post that triumph.

“This will be the real challenge, the competition at the HWL will be at a different level from the Asia Cup,” he had warned, stating the obvious.

India was the highest ranked side in Dhaka. Here, it is only sixth, with multiple World Cup and Olympics winners for company. The other teams in India’s pool include defending champion Australia, Germany and England — none an easy opponent. The good news is, regardless of results in the league stages, all eight teams play the quarterfinals, so the real competition would start then. The bad news is India’s notorious inconsistency, which makes every match, especially in the knock-outs, a gamble.

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Marijne is aware of the problem and has sought more consistency. He has been working on trying to ensure that. He has made players partners in everything during practice — the planning, strategising, substituting, leading on field — not just the result. He calls it ‘player-driven approach’ to coaching. But there are still no guarantees.

There are no guarantees for the other sides as well. Australia coach Colin Batch was spot-on when he said that this would perhaps be one of the most open international hockey competitions in recent times.

 

Anyone can win, all eight teams are equal, he said. He couldn’t have been more correct. As the World No. 2, closing in on the No. 1 spot, Australia is in the strange position of being the defending champion and yet not the favourite for the title. The retirement of several veterans including the likes of Jamie Dwyer and Chris Ciriello has opened the doors for the youngsters but it has also pushed Australia into a transitory phase. It won the Oceania Cup recently, just like it had done since it was constituted, but that wouldn’t count for much here given the only opposition it had, New Zealand, did not make the cut for Bhubaneswar.

The favourite tag, instead, rests on the Netherlands and Belgium and, to a lesser extent, Germany. The first two had cemented their position at the top of the table after meeting each other in the final of the European Championships. The Netherlands has the experience to win the title, without the old legs to slow it down. Belgium has consistently shunned individual flourish for team stability and reaped the rewards in the past few years. Still, when someone like Arthur van Doren or John-John Dohmen comes along, it makes Belgium interesting to watch.

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Germany, though, takes the honours in the experience category. Simply for the sheer number of match-winners in its ranks — Tobias Hauke, Florian Fuchs, Mats Grambusch, Christopher Ruhr —Stefan Kermas’ side would be feared.

Also boasting of match-winners and world-class playmakers is Olympic champion Argentina and coach Carlos Retegui, who earned the respect of the entire hockey world by taking both the men and women to bronze medals at the 2014 World Cup. At a time when handling one team is a pressure for most coaches at the world level, he handled two, simultaneously. The Rio gold for the men only added to his growing legendary status. Retegui speaks little but his expressions make the
passion more than evident. Losing is not an option and with Gonzalo Peillat, Matias Paredes and Lucas Vila, he has the resources to win yet again.

England and Spain complete the line-up. The former would be seeking to finally achieve its potential and step on the podium of a major tournament instead of fizzling out in the later stages and being more a spoilsport for others. The latter, riding on some exciting young talent from the junior ranks including 21-year-old playmaker Enrique Gonzalez, hoping to reclaim the glory days of dominance.

Top five Indian goal-scorers in 2017

1-Harmanpreet Singh-19 goals; 2-Ramandeep Singh-13; 3-Mandeep Singh-9; 4-Aakashdeep Singh-8; 5-Gurjant Singh and Lalit upadhyay-5 goals each.

India-Australia in international hockey

Played: 120; India wins: 22, Australia wins: 80, drawn:18; Goals for India: 199, Goals for Australia:369.

In HWL: Australia beat India on all three previous occasions. Last five matches: India wins-1,Australia wins-3, drawn-1.

Statistics compiled by B. G. Joshi