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Friday March 10, 2006

Awesome Aussies set to rule Commonwealth Games hockey

NEW DELHI: Australia's rivals at the Commonwealth Games hockey fear a frustrating fortnight ahead in Melbourne as the ruthless hosts move to win both gold medals on offer.  

The Australian men and women have been so dominant on the world stage that sweeping the field in the absence of European powerhouses like Holland and Germany is only to be expected.  

The Kookaburras, as the Australian men's team are called, have not lost a match at the Commonwealth Games since the sport became a medal sport in 1998.  

They won the gold in the inaugural competition in Kuala Lumpur by defeating Malaysia in the final and ousted New Zealand to take the title in Manchester four years later.  

Coach Barry Dancer's men begin the latest edition as the sport's undisputed leaders, having won their maiden Olympic title in Athens in 2004 and also the elite six-nation Champions Trophy in India in December.  

The settled Australian squad still have eight players – Brent Livermore, Dean Butler, Liam De Young, Bevan George, Aaron Hopkins, Stephen Lambert, Michael McCann and Matthew Wells – who won the gold in Manchester.  

Joining them will be star striker Jamie Dwyer, whose golden goal against the Dutch in Athens helped Australia break the jinx and secure their first Olympic gold medal.  

Australia are placed in Group A with New Zealand, England, Canada and Scotland with the top two advancing to the semi-finals.  

The tougher Group B comprises Pakistan, India, Malaysia, South Africa and Trinidad and Tobago.  

India and Pakistan, once the masters of the game and Australia's nearest rivals for Games supremacy, are under no illusion that the task in Melbourne will be easy.  

“Australia are by far the strongest team in world hockey today,” said Indian coach Rajinder Singh. “They will have to play really badly at home to lose.”  

Added Pakistan coach Asif Bajwa: “Oh yes, there will be stiff competition in Melbourne – for the silver and bronze medals.”  

Both India and Pakistan will be looking to top Group B that will save them a possible semi-final clash against the hosts.  

Five teams – Pakistan, Malaysia, New Zealand, England and Canada – have more than just a medal at stake in Melbourne.  

They will use the Games to gauge the opposition ahead of the World Cup qualifiers which follows soon after in Changzhou, China in April.  

“It's not going to be easy for players to peak and perform in two international tournaments within such a short period,” said Malaysian manager Nur Azmi Ahmad.  

“We plan to field all 16 players in Melbourne so that no one is exhausted before China.”  

Australia and India have already qualified for September's World Cup in Germany as the continental champions along with the hosts, Holland, Spain, Argentina and South Africa.  

The Australian women, meanwhile, were confident of regaining the gold medal after being forced to settle for a bronze in Manchester behind surprise winners India and England.  

The revival of the Hockeyroos began during the women's Champions Trophy in Canberra in December where they lost the final to Holland on a penalty shootout.  

Nikki Hudson and Rachel Imison, making their third successive Commonwealth Games appearance, will provide stability to the Hockeyroos who have three teenagers in their squad.  

The Australian women have been bunched with India, South Africa, Nigeria and Malaysia in Group A. The other group comprises England, New Zealand, Scotland, Canada and Barbados. – AFP 


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