Row upon row of orange clad, cheering spectators, noise levels reaching a crescendo as 15,000 people applauded the action on the pitch, mesmerising skills from the top exponents of the sport, the thud of a ball striking the backboard and the resulting jubilation on the pitch and in the stands. For anyone who was in The Hague for the 2014 Rabobank Hockey World Cup, the memories linger on.
Two players who made their mark at the World Cup in The Hague were Australia’s Anna Flanagan and USA’s Kathleen Sharkey. Australia finished the event with a silver medal after they dominated the pool stages but were unable to match the unstoppable Dutch team in the final. The USA astonished the hockey world as they defied the rankings – they were ranked 11th at the time – to claim fourth place and a lot of new admirers for their style of hard working, relentless hockey.
Flanagan finished the event as second highest scorer behind the Netherlands Maartje Paumen, while Sharkey was one of a number of USA attackers who drew praise from hockey pundits for her speed, athleticism and never-say-die attitude.
“We trained so hard to prepare for that tournament,” says Sharkey as she looks back. “We were able to use our strength, speed, and fitness to our advantage. Everyone in the squad brought the intensity from the very start of the tournament, and we were able to bring that consistent energy and work rate for the duration of all the games.”
USA’s Head Coach at the time was Craig Parnham and his policy of taking each game as it came paid dividends. Higher ranked teams England, China and Germany all fell to the USA style of play. A draw with Argentina was the icing on the cake in the pool games.
“I think we had the same goals in each of our games of the event from the beginning to the end,” says Sharkey. “We took it one game at a time and didn’t get ahead of ourselves. We focused on what we could control and tried to limit any outside distractions.”
For 28 year old Sharkey, the Vitality Hockey Women’s World Cup in London is very much in her sights. With 135 caps to her name, the striker is one of a handful of experienced players who have been with the team since they finished fifth in the 2013 Hockey World League Semi-Finals to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. Since then the USA has been on an upward trajectory and will be viewing a medal in London as a very tangible target.
Anna Flanagan has since taken a break from international hockey although she still plays top level hockey in Australia. She is working as a television commentator, fulfilling a long-held ambition to carve out a career in the media. She recalls the excitement surrounding the 2014 World Cup. “The atmosphere at the World Cup in The Hague was the best I have ever experienced in my career. It even trumped the Olympic Games. The stadium was always full and everyone would be up and dancing and cheering all game, every game. It was completely surreal to play every game with thousands of people cheering even if the Netherlands weren’t playing.”
Like the USA, Australia performed above their ranking at the tournament. They were ranked fifth in the world, so a second place finish was a good result. While she won’t take the credit, Flanagan’s contribution was immense. She scored six of Australia’s 11 goals, mainly through her deadly accurate drag flicks at penalty corners.
“Individually and as a team it was a good event,” she says. “I was sharing drag flicking duties with Jodie Kenny and we were really confident in our corner battery that one of us could score. Every single game was so close and therefore being able to get our corners in proved the difference for us.”
Flanagan’s consistent accuracy in front of goal is something that Australia will need to replicate in London. At the recent Commonwealth Games, where they took silver behind New Zealand, they showed they are a strong defensive unit but found scoring a challenge. For the USA scoring is something they do with ease, but maintaining their levels of work rate through all stages of an event is a tough ask and Head Coach Janneke Schopman will be looking to old-timers like Sharkey to use every ounce of experience to ensure that USA are fighting for the medals at the end of the tournament.