THEY’RE the most successful team any nation or any sport has sent to the Commonwealth Games for the past two decades – and now the Kookaburras are laughing again. RON REED reports:
THE 2018 Commonwealth Games men’s hockey gold medallists are up and running. The Australian Kookaburras began their campaign with a 3-0 win over South Africa and will now proceed to defeat Scotland, Canada and New Zealand on their way to the finals, where they will continue to dominate.
Getting a bit ahead of ourselves?
Not according to the history books. Hockey was introduced to the Commonwealth Games five editions ago, in Kuala Lumpur in 1998, and the Australian men have won the gold medal every time, only ever losing on match.
Not even the Australian swimmers could seriously challenge their claim to the title of the most successful outfit in CommGames history. However, that does not mean that they are strutting around the Gold Coast as if they own the joint.
For this is just a high-profile stop-over on the way to proving a bigger point on far more important stage. The old hands are still smarting about their ignominious exit at the quarter-final stage of the Rio Olympics two years ago. Their sixth placing was Australia’s equal worst since Rome in 1960.
The Kookas always go into the Olympics highly-ranked and among the favourites but they have pouched the elusive gold medal only once, in Athens in 2004, along with eight minor medals. It is one of Australian sport’s most frustrating journeys and while nobody is being disrespectful to the Commonwealth Games or taking the immediate challenge lightly, the big-picture focus is firmly on the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
Captain Mark Knowles is an exception to that – he is retiring after this event after a stellar career, which is one of the reasons he was given the honour of carrying the flag at the opening ceremony.
He and vastly experienced coach Colin Batch – who was appointed after the Rio debacle, having previously been Australia’s assistant coach and head coach of Belgium and New Zealand – have overseen a comeback that saw Australia win the World League last year and regain the No 1 ranking.
Normally, South Africa would be a straightforward assignment, having never finished better than fifth at Commonwealth level, or 10th at the Olympics. They are ranked 15.
However, no Australian sports team ever fails to take South Africa seriously, and that has never been truer than in the wake of the disastrous cricket tour. At the hockey, this seems to be a case of “don’t mention the war.” Batch said he had no intention of talking about cricket and the entire South African camp, not just the hockey players, is understood to have banned any sledging about the cheating scandal, or the lop-sided result, for fear of causing offence. Frankly, that doesn’t sound very South African.
There is also the small historical factoid that Australia’s only CommGames defeat – the record stands at 29-1 prior to the tournament – was inflicted by the South Africans, but that was in 1998 – a lifetime ago in terms of relevance.
There was certainly no repeat, Australia making a tardy start but the dominating general play thereafter and winning 4-0, with two goals to forward Trent Mitton and one each to Jeremy Hayward and Aaron KJleinschmidt overwhelming a gallant performance by South African goalkeeper Gowan Jones.
Mitton, 27, personifies the Kookaburras legacy, his grandfather Don and father Grant having also represented Australia. “I’ve had a hockey stick in my hand since I could walk because I always used to watch dad play,” he said.
RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.