"Alex Danson is known to her team-mates as 'sleepy,'" the stadium compere declared last night, in the course of providing a detailed introduction to a drenched crowd of the British players who have become little less than fixated on the idea of winning Olympic gold over the past four years.
Well, that was a misnomer, all right. Danson required only six minutes to score from close range and demonstrate her powers of finishing to a Japanese side ranked ninth in the world and not expected to be the slouches of this tournament.
"I hope I'm like Wayne Rooney as a player but not in any other way," Danson said before this game, in that obliging way which the hockey players have of offering a football signifier for themselves to make the nation understand their sport.
The first half offered attacking, aggressive sport – not quite what you get from the national or British football team but a spectacle which ought to give hockey a wider audience.
"We are more fluid than we were four years ago and play across multiple lines and positions now. It comes with more risks because in the past we had people who played in one position all their lives," coach Danny Kerry reflected late last night, his satisfaction with a "thorough" win only diminished by the departure to hospital of his influential captain Kate Walsh, who took a bad blow from a Japanese stick late in the game." Her continued role in the tournament was uncertain. "We didn't expect that," said the Japan coach, Zenjiro Yasuda. "They are more powerful than we last played them."
The bright blue "Smurf Turf" surface, which the women have taken some getting used to, was wringing wet but they kept their feet. Danson did her Rooney routine, finishing again after Helen Richardson had played the ball in, and there was a particularly fine lobbed back-flick for the British third from Sally Walton – not bad for a defender.
Sarah Thomas was the other scorer, taking the ball Anne Panter delivered from the left. But it was midfielder Laura Bartlett and the experienced defender Crista Cullen who provided the best exposition of why Kerry's players have been building a reputation around this tournament. "Train hard, play easy," is Cullen's motto. Her performance didn't bear that out, even though the Japanese were poor.
Of course, the real opponents to fear had left the building about six hours earlier, a 3-0 opening-game win under the belts, but there was no mistaking how much they mean business. The Dutch Oranje are as gifted on the hockey field as on the football pitch, except they don't fall out in the same way that the footballers do and their exuberant coach Max Caldas sees their new attacking philosophy as something with the Dutch psyche at its core. "How long have you got?" Caldas said, when The Independent approached him yesterday on the philosophy of this formidable team of his, which had brushed away the Belgians 3-0 in the day's second game. "It's to attack," hesaid. "Attack from every single point of the pitch. Take risks. Sometimes that comes from the heart – that's the nature of this country. We stay true to who we are…."
Caldas was born in Buenos Aires, though his English makes him sound as Dutch as Martin Jol and his big personality has enabled the Dutch players to coalesce around an individual who does not take himself too seriously. "I love good food but enough is enough," he said recently, admitting in the Dutch press that he was having to shed pounds.
Caldas feels, as do the British hockey squads, that the pace of game has moved on significantly since Beijing, where the Dutch took gold. But he shares the feeling in the international hockey fraternity that Kerry's squad's decision to closet themselves away working full-time at Bisham Abbey, since the disappointment of sixth place in Beijing, makes them the most improved squad of the past four years. "They are one of the best now. There's no doubt about it," he added.
The difficulty is that everyone else has upped the ante, too. New Zealand's shock 1-0 win over Australia proving another point Caldas wanted to make about the women's competition. "In Beijing there was much bigger difference between the top three or four and the rest," he said. "Now it's different. There's going to be a lot of swapping points in the pools and we are waiting to see who gets up there and wins. Is it going to happen for us? I wouldn't have a clue. Are we going to go for it? Absolutely. GB, I think, is right up there. You've the Argies, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, the USA."
Cullen had a shot saved from Japan's redoubtable keeper Sakiyo Asano in the second half and she also hit the post, though Kerry's side could do more damage and actually sustained some. Walsh had to be helped off after being hit with a stick. The GB chants and a lone trumpeter were in union at the end, though it was relief, rather than euphoria, which showed on their faces as they took the left the field with a job done. They will feel they can cement this start tomorrow against South Korea – world ranked eighth but beaten4-0 by China yesterday. Then come the bigger challenges. No one will be sleeping.
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