Whatever is said – or not said – about the Commonwealth Games, it is hard to imagine any sporting contest finishing with the drama and excitement of the women’s gold-medal hockey match between Australia and England. Sport is easy to love when it produces stories like this.
At stake: Australia, a young team stepping out the shadow of golden eras past, and taking a step in building their own legacy. They had beaten England 3-0 earlier in the week and bristled with confidence. England, also a young group hungry to make its name as a dark horse, having upset New Zealand in the semi-final and aiming to sneak up on Australia this night.
A filthy night it was too, with rain and wind sweeping the Glasgow National Hockey Centre. The weather eased before the start of the match, but left a film of water on the field, making the ball sticky and slow on the ground but skiddy when airborne and bouncing.
The challenge of pressure plus conditions seemed to affect Australia more, initially at least. England came out fresh and perky, while the Australians appeared tentative. Only a left-footed stop by goalkeeper Rachael Finch in the sixth minute stopped England from taking a cheeky lead.
Nearly falling behind galvanised the Australians, and their experienced players took charge. Their twin towers in defence, Jodie Kenny and Anna Flanagan, were calm and impassable in setting the tempo of the game, while captain Madonna Blyth patrolled the middle of the field suspiciously, stooped and quick-witted and beady-eyed. As Australia exerted control, England fell back into a defensive pattern, hoping to frustrate the Hockeyroos and create chances on the break.
As the first half deepened, two themes emerged. The first was that Australia were more likely to score – Kellie White scooping the ball wide from point-blank range in the 15th minute was the best hope, and then Australia missed from a penalty corner a minute before half-time. England, meanwhile, sat back and entrenched themselves. But the second theme was the scoreboard. The longer it remained a 0-0 game, the more Australia’s patience would be tested and the more encouragement England would take. Australia were strung between two opposites: overconfidence, because they were controlling the game, and anxiety, because they were not scoring.
In the 13th minute of the second half, that tension broke England’s way. Kenny made a rare foray upfield, but England won the ball. As the Australian defence was reorganising, a moment’s confusion in the circle gave England’s Lily Owsley an opportunity which she took with a clever flick into the roof of the net.
The scoreboard pressure of 0-0 had taken a toll on the Australians. Now 0-1 produced signs of panic and sloppiness from a team that had been imperious all tournament. Worse, it was one of those matches in which the scoring opportunities were rare. Ashleigh Nelson and Brooke Peris were both blocked on the same play with eight minutes to go. Soon the clock seemed to speed up as the home crowd, sensing an underdog victory, lifted and chanted for England.
For so long, it looked like a giant-killer’s tale. Australia looked like a team that would beat England most times they played, but this was the one night when the pluck and spirit of the lesser team would win through. And up to the last minute, England would have deserved a win. In the 21 minutes of play since going ahead on the scoreboard, England were the better team.
But there was still a minute to go. Australia pressed down the right through the ever-dangerous Georgie Parker, and won a penalty corner. By the time Casey Eastham took it, 30 seconds remained. The ball went to Kenny, but England blocked her shot, surely to claim the win. But no – the umpire saw England’s defenders break too quickly, and re-awarded Australia the corner.
Now England protested, calling for a video referral. Australia’s coaching staff called out from the sideline, correctly, that referrals were not allowed when the ruling was a break. But England’s protest was against Eastham’s manner of taking the corner, suggesting that she had feinted, causing the defenders to run out too soon.
Eventually the appeal was rejected. Eastham was to take the corner again, with 24 seconds on the clock. The umpire warned her to stroke the ball in a regular fashion. She sent it out again, not this time to Kenny but to Flanagan. Her shot was blocked by goalkeeper Maddie Hinch, and again, for a moment, England thought they had won. But the ball rebounded to Kenny, owner of the most feared stick on the field; she slotted the ball into the right-hand side of the net.
From the brink of shock and despair, Australia had saved the match, in the last seconds, with the last play. From the brink of elation, England had been pulled back. Now for the cruellest cut, the penalty shootout. Either Hinch or Lynch was destined to be the grinch. Hockey’s adjustment to a one-on-one mobile contest between shooter and goalkeeper, rather than penalty strokes, as the tie-breaker is a welcome one. As Lynch said later, ‘I enjoy it more than just standing there and hoping I might get something on it, because it lets me show what I can do.’
Eastham went first, for Australia, weaving left and sliding the ball under Hinch. Georgie Trigg replied successfully for England, going wide and right around Lynch.
Then Australia lost the advantage of going first. Kellie White put on a tricky play and eluded Hinch, but slightly mishit her shot, giving the goalkeeper that split-second to stop it.
England had their best attacking player, Alex Danson, up next. Surely she would score. She didn’t. Lynch forced her wide to the right and her shot missed.
Next, Parker for Australia: sure, fast and into the left-hand corner.
England had scored their last goal. Lynch came out hard at Susie Gilbert, and saved well.
So it was set up for Kenny, the blonde lynchpin of Australia’s defence and a constant goalscoring threat. No more fitting end could come.
For once, Kenny didn’t do it. She took the ball to the advancing Hinch and veered right. As Kenny swung her stick at the ball, Hinch slid in and brought her down. The ball went wide – advantage England. But the umpire called a foul, which meant a penalty stroke for Kenny. Advantage Australia! England asked for another video referral. Advantage England? The decision was upheld: Hinch had touched the ball fractionally after she had impeded Kenny.
So Kenny took the penalty stroke. Now she would finish it.
Kenny missed, left.
It was back to evens. Now Nicola White came up for England. Lynch came out at her again to narrow the angle. White rounded her and beat her to the right. Just as White was steadying to tuck the ball in on a sharpish angle, it ran away from her and escaped over the line. Incredible.
If there was any player Australia would have wanted to see now, it was their captain. Blyth, their best penalty artist, their best player, had been saved for this moment. She looked supremely calm and mentally ordered. ‘I’m glad I looked that way!’ she joked later. She took the ball forward, not at great speed, but with intent. It happened fast and slow at the same time. She feinted just enough to send Hinch off balance, and tucked the ball to the left, and in, a textbook execution.
That is it, in all its detail. A great sporting event, and the second time in successive Commonwealth Games that Australia has won a gold medal in this cut-throat manner, though in Delhi, against New Zealand, it was in the old penalty stroke format. Nearly all of England’s players were in tears. They had come excruciatingly close three, four, five times, and it had been taken away from them. Cruel. Some of the Australians were in tears, too. Their coach, Adam Commens, said that if they had lost he would still have been proud of the positive way they had played and developed their style in this tournament. Process over result. But still, he was glad of the result. Lynch was quietly pleased. She had shown what she could do, just like she said she would. Blyth was as composed in victory as she had been at every point of the match. She would have been the only person in the place who was. But only on the outside, and that’s the trick of it.