Match Day 7 of the FIH Pro League was a memorable one for the national teams of Belgium, who both recorded excellent victories against host nation Australia at the State Hockey and Netball Centre in Melbourne.
The Red Lions brought a fruitful tour that has taken in three continents in three weeks to a close with a terrific 4-1 triumph over the Kookaburras, with Player of the Match Sebastien Dockier scoring twice.
There was also joy for Belgium’s women, who recorded a first ever win against Australia as goals from Michelle Struijk and Louise Versavel gave the Red Panthers a 2-1 victory over the higher-ranked Hockeyroos.
Australia’s men (FIH World Ranking 2) were aiming to instantly bounce back from the shoot-out defeat suffered at the hands of the Netherlands in Melbourne on Saturday (2 February), a match that the Kookaburras had been leading 5-2 going into the final quarter before the Dutch staged a remarkable comeback.
The home favourites made the perfect start against world champions Belgium (WR: 1) – shoot-out winers against New Zealand’s Black Sticks in Auckland on Friday (1 February) – by scoring in the opening minute through Daniel Beale, who slapped into an unguarded goal after a quality assist from Jacob Anderson.
However, the Red Lions – playing their fourth FIH Pro League match on a tour that has seen them visit Spain, Argentina and New Zealand in the lead-up to today’s meeting with Australia – dominated the latter stages of the opening period and fully deserved their equaliser, with Sebastien Dockier squeezing a shot between goalkeeper Andrew Charter and his right post to restore parity.
The battle between the two highest ranked teams in world hockey continued in the second quarter, although the pace of the action seemed to drop as soaring temperatures in Melbourne took their toll on both sets of athletes.
It was unquestionably Belgium who owned the period, with Tom Boon congratulating Charter immediately after the latter produced a breathtaking stick save from the Belgium striker’s rocket-shot before Alexander Hendrickx found the target with a trademark penalty corner, putting the Red Lions into a 2-1 lead at half time.
Australian hopes were dealt a significant blow when Head Coach Colin Batch confirmed in the half time broadcast interview that talented young attacker Tim Brand would not be returning to the field due to injury, and things went from bad to worse when Dockier netted his second goal after some excellent build-up play from reigning FIH Player of the Year Arthur Van Doren.
Tanguy Cosyns made it 4-1 before the quarter was complete, while Kookaburras captain Aran Zelewski missed a glorious opportunity to pull a goal back when he fired wide of the target with the goal at his mercy.
Both teams had chances to score in the fourth quarter. The Kookaburras failed to take advantage of a couple of penalty corner opportunities, while Belgium had a penalty corner of their own correctly ruled out as the effort from Alexander Hendrickx was deemed high when it hit an Australian player on route to goal.
A 4-1 win was the perfect way to end an extremely productive period on the road for Belgium, with the world champions claiming an impressive nine points from an available twelve to leave their early league position looking very healthy indeed.
Speaking after the match, Australia captain Aran Zelewski said: “We are obviously a little bit disappointed about today, but full credit to the Belgians who were very clinical. We let in five goals yesterday and four today. We often pride ourselves in our defence, something that was definitely not good enough over the weekend here in Melbourne. It’s our first few games of the year so we’ll look to rebound in Tasmania next weekend [against Germany].”
Australia’s Hockeyroos (WR:3) came into their meeting against Belgium’s women (WR:13) feeling confident about their chances of success, boosted by Saturday’s notable 1-0 win against world champions the Netherlands. However, the Red Panthers had good reason to feel optimistic following Friday’s 1-0 triumph against the New Zealand Black Sticks in Auckland.
There was little to choose between the hosts and the European silver medallists in the opening quarter, with neither side able to create any clear-cut goal-scoring opportunities.
Australia attacker Grace Stewart had a half-chance from a tight angle but could not direct her shot on target, while Belgium were intelligent in their play, doing everything in their power to control the pace and tempo of the game in the hot playing conditions.
The match remained evenly balanced in the second quarter, with both teams equal across the board in terms of possession, circle entries and shots on goal. A clever deflection from Belgium’s Jill Boon was arguably the best chance of the period, her subtle touch changing the trajectory of the ball but not enough to catch out Hockeyoos goalkeeper Rachael Lynch.
Speaking in his half time broadcast interview, Red Panthers Head Coach Niels Thijssen indicated that he was not entirely satisfied with his team’s performance and was looking for improvement after the break.
He got exactly what he wished for, with Belgium taking the game to hosts and eventually being rewarded when they took the lead through a brilliantly executed penalty corner. A quick pass at the top of the circle allowed Michelle Struijk time and space to drill a low shot into the goal, putting the Red Panthers into 1-0 lead.
Belgium doubled their advantage early in the fourth quarter thanks to a cracking backhand strike from Louise Versavel, who found the gap between the post and replacement Hockeyroos goalkeeper Ashlee Wells. Versavel’s strike proved to be crucial, with Australia pulling a goal back through Brooke Peris but being unable to find an equaliser thanks to numerous exceptional saves from brilliant Belgian goalkeeper Aisling D’Hooghe.
“It’s really nice, the first time we have ever beaten Australia in an official game, so I’m very proud of team”, said Belgium captain and Player of the Match Barbara Nelen. “We fought really hard to get these points so I’m super happy. To get three points against them, for us it is a huge performance.”
A first ever win against Australia is another major milestone in the development of the Belgium women’s team, who are constantly proving that they are far better than their position in the FIH World Rankings would indicate.
The Red Panthers currently sit second in the FIH Pro League standings after claiming six points from three matches, with their points percentage of 66.7 leaving them just behind Argentina, who have 83.3 percent as a result of their five points from two matches.
The FIH Pro League action continues on Friday 8 February, with New Zealand’s men and women playing host to Great Britain at the Nga Puna Wai Hockey Stadium in Christchurch.