Olympic gold set to inspire English hockey players
Helen Richardson-Walsh’s impressive hockey CV was a catalogue of Commonwealth Games, World Cup and Olympic near-misses, with Australia’s Hockeyroos often responsible for her woes. But victory at Rio 2016 finally gave her that elusive gold medal, and has provided her teammates on the England side with a massive psychological boost prior to the Gold Coast.
From Ashes cricket to Lions rugby, the cycling velodrome to Wimbledon’s Centre Court, British and Australian athletes have contested some truly fierce rivalries over the years.
Women’s hockey has been no exception. Clashes between the Hockeyroos and both Great Britain and England have defined several tournaments – particularly at the Commonwealth Games.
Helen Richardson-Walsh, one of Great Britain and England’s most prominent players over the past 15 years, has been at the heart of these fixtures.
“England against Australia is always the big one,” she laughs. “It’s always a good game, and I’ve had a career-long rivalry with them. There are some really, really good memories – and some not so good ones.”
It was in Australia, at Sydney 2000, that Richardson-Walsh became the youngest female hockey player to represent Great Britain at an Olympic Games. She was part of a side that lost 2-1 to Australia and didn’t advance out of the group.
Two years later however, playing for England at the Manchester 2002 Commonwealth Games, the tables turned. “I was still very young and it was on home turf, so I really have special memories of Manchester,” she says. “There was a real excitement because we were a team on the up.
“The best game of the tournament was our semifinal against Australia. It was an evening match and it was absolutely chucking it down with rain. Nobody would have expected us to win [Australia were reigning World Cup and Olympic champions], but we played so well and beat them 2-1. It was great.
“I still look back on those Commonwealth Games with a tinge of disappointment though, because we only won silver in the end.”
Australia would hit back four years later at the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games, winning their semifinal 3-0 over England on their way to the title. “Things went the other way, and it’s always so hard to play Australia on home turf, which is something I’m sure a lot of teams will discover on the Gold Coast,” says Richardson-Walsh.
“The event was brilliant. Australia always does these things so well. The [athletes’] village was amazing – it reminded me a bit of being on the set of Neighbours, oddly enough, and the crowds were so passionate. But in the end Australia got the better of us in the semis. It was nice to come away with a bronze medal, but again, it wasn’t the colour we wanted.”
Four years later, as the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games got underway, Richardson-Walsh and her teammates felt sure that they could regain the upper hand. “The rivalry was really big, but we thought we had a really good chance in India,” she says.
“If you look at 2010, we were a team on the rise. We’d got bronze at the World Cup, our first international medal in a long time. That was really big.
“And Australia weren’t quite the force they’d once been. We went in in good spirits. Unfortunately, that Commonwealth Games came at the end of a very long year, and we didn’t play the hockey we were capable of. We didn’t top the pool, so we got Australia in the semis, and they beat us 1-0.”
Had Richardson-Walsh’s story ended here, her career would have been one of a valiant player with a collection of silver and bronze medals to her name. But Rio 2016 changed everything. Great Britain stormed to gold, winning every match along the way.
The world has taken notice. The British side are no longer underdogs, and the English team – featuring largely the same squad – will travel to the Gold Coast with a target on their back.
“It was magical and surreal to finally get the right colour medal in Rio,” says Richardson-Walsh. “To do it the way we did, and by winning every game, was just so special.
“The strength of the team was that it wasn’t about a star player. Literally everyone in that squad, including those who didn’t make the final team, played their part.
“Although it’s been over a year since we won, I still show that gold medal to a lot of people, and watching their faces when they look at it is really fantastic.”
The psychological boost that it gives England is invaluable, she believes. “It will give the English and other GB girls such confidence in the Gold Coast,” she says. “When we first started to change our programme and look at our training, I still feel that deep down there wasn’t the belief that we could do it at the top level.
“But then we started to win semifinals and bronze medals. Then we built on that and won gold. The difference that makes when you go into those crucial games, those must-win quarters and semis, is huge. Winning becomes a habit.
“This cohort of players now, all they’ve known is reaching finals, winning. The belief that gives you, coupled with experience and a coaching staff that ensure there is no complacency, are very important. The competition for places is tough. If you let up, you will get overtaken.
“Moving towards the Gold Coast, the girls will have that little bit extra mentally now, when it comes to playing Australia and New Zealand.”
Richardson-Walsh also fancies the home side to put on a show, however. “You have to look out for the hosts, and New Zealand,” she says. “All three sides like to play exciting, attacking, fast hockey. It’s great to watch, and unpredictable. South Africa and India will be strong, too.
“For England there is that slight difference with Great Britain, too. You lose a few Scottish and Welsh girls and gain some different players. It’s a bit of a smaller squad, with less depth, and a bit more intimate.
“But the basic values are the same. Rio can give them the push to finally win that Commonwealth Games gold.”
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This article was produced by AMP Media.