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The future’s Oranje

• Posted in Hockey • By JoeBaker

Go back to the 2016 Rio Olympics in Brazil and the greatest ever moment for the women’s British hockey team. Team GB pulled off an almighty shock to beat overwhelming favourites and three-times gold medallists the Netherlands. Many viewed this as a major turning point, with the games’ tectonic plates shifting to bring forward a new dominant international force.

It hasn’t quite turned out that way. In fact, that match was the last time the Oranje were defeated. They’ve now gone an incredible 32 games undefeated in all competitions. Over the last two years Alyson Annan’s side have won the 2017 European Championships, finished top of the 60 team 2016/17 Hockey World League and most recently secured a stunning and record-breaking 8th World Cup title. Inevitably, as of August 2018 they are top of the World Rankings, with a huge 552 points separating them and second placed England.

When we talk about some of the best teams in the world, this Netherlands side are right up there amongst the best of them. They may not be the defending Olympic Champions any more, but few international sides across sport can match the current dominance of the Netherlands hockey team.

Their status as one of the most compelling forces in sport was underlined spectacularly during the two-week World Cup, hosted at the Lee Valley Centre in London. None of the other 15 teams came close to matching the quality and consistency of a team that thrived under the pressure and expectancy. Four years on from winning the title in front of a huge 15,000 strong home crowd at The Hague, they swept through their group, putting 7 goals apiece past South Korea and China before pummelling Italy 12-1. The quarter-final saw redemption partly achieved by comfortably knocking out England, before a tight match against Australia’s Hockeyroos saw them hold their nerve in a penalty shoot-out to reach yet another final. There Ireland were easily second best, with four goals in a seven-minute spell around the half-time break earning the Dutch an emphatic 6-0 victory. Over six matches they scored 35 goals, 20 more than the next highest scorers Spain, and conceded just 3. It was the very definition of emphatic.

The traits that followers of hockey have become accustomed to seeing with this team were all on show. The speed and accuracy in moving the ball and transitioning from defence to attack was second to none, whilst immense work rate was again allied with the sparkle of creativity that makes them so lethal in the final third of the field. The Dutch showed again how lethal they are off penalty corners and gave the impression in every match of a side in which every player knows their individual roles but also had the capability to slot in and cover for their colleagues. A confident, efficient, imaginative and ruthless team, a unit with no obvious weakness. No one could get close to them.

And this is a unit with a heavy sprinkling of stardust. The forward Lidewij Welten was deservedly named as player of the tournament, whilst Kitty Van Male finished as its top scorer with an impressive eight goals. The current squad has some youthful faces but by in large is full of players at their peak offering vital stability, some of whom have even broken the 200-cap mark in captain Carlien Dirkse van den Heuvel and Eva de Goede. Others such as Lidewij Welten, who has now scored 71 goals for her country, and defender Margot van Geffen were colossus throughout. This is a squad that only knows winning – even the coach Alyson Annan is a former FIH Player of the Year and was part of the World Cup winning squads in 1994 and 1998.

What’s more, as shown by the non-selection of Maria Verschoor, a player who would walk into most sides in the world, the Dutch have a talent pool of remarkable depth. Indeed, the conversation around the Dutch during the World Cup was just as much about the players who weren’t there as those who were swatting away opponents on the field. Coach Annan has made a lot of the talented and capable juniors banging on the door who she wants to bring through, and the approaching international Hockey Pro League, due to start in January 2019, will give her the opportunity to do exactly that. Expect them to get even better. They are a wounded animal after that Olympic Final defeat and you sense that all the focus is on Tokyo in 2020 and winning a fourth gold medal.

This Netherlands team have set a bar that is continuing to rise. The challenge they have laid down to the chasing pack, and the electric style in which they play, can only be good for the women’s game and hockey as a whole. The future for the game is bright. And right now, it’s very much Oranje.

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