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Where did it go wrong for Great Britain at the 2018 Hockey Champions Trophy?

By Sam Bannister

The 2018 Women’s Hockey Champions Trophy was virtually a write-off for Great Britain, who, despite entering the tournament as Olympic champions, managed just one win from six games.

After failing to win any of their round robin matches, Britain finally claimed their sole victory in the fifth-place play-off, against Japan, to ensure the tournament ended on some kind of a high note.

So, where did it all go wrong? How did the team fall so far in the short space of two years?

Whilst it was the first time they had competed as Great Britain since the glory of Rio, many of the players were still the same. Experienced key players such as stand-in captain Hollie Pearne-Webb, defender Laura Unsworth and midfielder Susannah Townsend were just three names who were in both squads. Besides, most of the team comprised players who had played together for England in this summer’s World Cup. The problem was not a lack of familiarity.

One name who was missing, though, was Alex Danson – and her absence was one of the main factors in Britain’s problems throughout the tournament. An inspirational captain and the team’s best attacker, even at the age of 33, Danson led by example at the World Cup. However, concussion ruled the Clifton Robinsons’ forward out of the Champions Trophy, and Britain struggled to fill the void left by her absence.

With Danson unable to travel to China, the responsibility fell to the likes of Sophie Bray and Hannah Martin to spearhead Britain’s attacks. The pair performed reasonably well throughout the competition, but fell short of the cutting edge that makes Danson such a threat.

Martin managed two goals, including one in the classification match against Japan, while Bray contributed one against the same opponents in the group phase. However, throughout all matches, circle entries were at a premium, with the stubborn defences of Australia and the Netherlands proving particularly frustrating.

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The tournament champions, Netherlands, also negotiated the competition without their best player, Lidewij Welten. However, they didn’t suffer, and found alternative ways to continue their domination of opponents. Britain needed their players to step up in the same way.

At the other end of the pitch, inspirational goalkeeper Maddie Hinch stepped away from international hockey following the World Cup, and like Danson, her absence took its toll on the team. The goalkeeping responsibilities were shared instead by Amy Tennant and Sabbie Heesh at the Champions Trophy. England conceded just four goals in five games at the World Cup thanks to Hinch’s heroics, but at the Champions Trophy, Britain conceded 12 goals in five games. The side were clearly affected by the lack of a strong presence in goal.

Another notable absentee from the Olympic and World Cup campaigns was head coach Danny Kerry, who vacated his position to take charge of the men’s team earlier this year after the World Cup. Kerry’s assistant coach David Ralph oversaw Britain’s fortunes in China, but if the team was hoping for a smooth transition, it didn’t materialise.

Ralph had a short window of time to implement his own ideas, and it showed, as despite some signs of promise, the team just didn’t work as effectively as they had under Kerry. But this group of players should have had no problems performing well together. Ralph looks set to get the job on a permanent basis, but perhaps he isn’t the right man for the job in the long term.

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All things considered though, playing in a competition without your captain and best player, as well as your best goalkeeper, under the guidance of an interim coach, was always going to be difficult.

Imagine how England’s football team would have done at the World Cup if they were without Harry Kane, Jordan Pickford and Gareth Southgate. That’s the kind of situation Britain found themselves in at the Champions Trophy, so the under-performance is forgivable to an extent.

However, some basic issues were still prevalent, with the side failing to take advantage of big opportunities. At the World Cup this summer, England’s struggles from penalty corners became almost laughable. The side only scored two goals from short corners, seeing a myriad of opportunities pass them by.

Those problems were not resolved by the time the players regrouped for the Champions Trophy. Of the six goals that Britain scored in the Champions Trophy, only the last one came from a penalty corner routine.

In contrast, Netherlands showed the importance of being clinical from such chances. In their group win over Argentina, all three goals came from short corners. Britain, however, remained largely wasteful.

So, where now for Great Britain’s hockey team? Next year, they will compete in the inaugural FIH Pro League, a competition that will give them the opportunity to play together at a high level on a more regular basis.

They will be involved in 16 high-profile, competitive games between February and June, which will no doubt be beneficial in their preparations for their Olympic defence at Tokyo 2020. The return of Danson and the installation of a permanent coach – be it Ralph or someone else – should help the team get back on track as they look to recover from a disappointing summer of hockey.

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