Purists are given short shrift

England fall at the semi-final hurdle as old enemy march on
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The National Hockey Stadium in Milton Keynes is quite a sight: a great sculpted wing of a grandstand and towering floodlights so bright that they quite eclipse the illuminated signage on the Tempo Electrical Superstore next door. It is a worthy setting for world-class sport and on Friday evening the home side came tantalisingly close to a place in the Junior World Cup final. But in a new setting the old enemy prevailed, and Australia, who beat England 2-1, will today play India for the gold medal while the hosts take on Germany for third place honours.

Support for the home side was vociferous during Friday's semi-final, and not all of it came from the locals. One Indian contingent were noisily critical of the negative style of play that the young Australian team adopted. "Play some hockey!" a middle-aged gentleman yelled. "Bloody waste of time! Is that all you play for, short corners?"

In truth, England were also pretty keen to pursue short corners, and it is not surprising that junior players should follow the tactic when the most recognisable celebrity of the senior game, Calum Giles, is a short corner specialist who probably spends no more than five minutes a match on the field of play.

Purists don't like it, and there were many in Friday night's crowd. It was easy to see their point of view: the first half was strangled by man-marking and percentage play, England's players nervously defending the lead they had earned from their second penalty corner in the eighth minute, when Adrian Simons tucked away a carefully placed shot after Paul Wickin had been clobbered by Matthew Wells.

It was dour stuff, but things perked up a little in the second half, for neutral fans at least. Australia came out after the interval with the unusual and attractive notion of passing the ball around, and as England's defending grew more resolute the contest took off. The crowd were too absorbed to join in when England's mascot, a tiresome lion in Bermuda shorts and sunglasses, attempted to get some patriotic chanting under way.

The Australian fans were less reticent, howling whenever a decision went against them and indulging in raucous choruses of "Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi!"

Their players responded, and when the equaliser came it was from open play, Ben Taylor racing down the left to score from a narrow angle. England's young players now had to adopt an uncharacteristic policy of venturing into their opponents' half of the field, and the experience clearly unnerved them, for within four minutes Australia had forced two more penalty corners, and Troy Elmer had converted one for what turned out to be the decisive goal.

The English lion stopped capering - to universal relief - but the English players did not, hurling themselves into the Australians, who responded by whacking the ball away as far as possible or retreating with it into a corner and daring the English to come after them. Once more, the purists were unhappy, but the Australian players were delirious with joy when they survived until the final hooter, collapsing in a huge scrum in the middle of the field.

It had not been the best of advertisements for the game of hockey, as both coaches conceded afterwards. "We didn't play the way we wanted to play," Australia's Barry Dancer admitted. "The rhythm, flow and continuity which we can achieve were not there in the first 35 minutes. But I think you can put that down to a lack of experience on the part of the players on both sides."

Jon Royce, his English counterpart, agreed. "We got pushed a little deeper than we would have liked," he said. "But on the balance of play I think Australia deserved to win." Royce was less than delighted with one of the umpires, a Spaniard who he felt had unjustly condemned the English central defender Jon Evennett to a 10-minute suspension.

But that was a matter for debate in the bar, where the diplomatic business was conducted. While Indians, Germans, Australians and English amicably discussed that and other matters over a pint or two, a small toddler determinedly whacked balls into the goal on the pitch. Let the grown-ups talk: this was the Junior World Cup, after all.

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