The Hockey Men’s World Cup begins on Wednesday 28 November in Bhubaneswar, India, with Belgium and Canada facing off in the first match of hockey’s biggest tournament outside the Olympics.
England’s campaign starts at 1330 on Friday 30 November against China. Head Coach Danny Kerry will be hoping his side can better their fourth place finish from four years ago.
Sixteen teams split into four groups will compete in a total of 36 matches over two weeks at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar, India.
England’s squad features nine Rio Olympians and will also face Ireland and Australia – who meet at 1130am on Friday in the pool stages.
Australia, the reigning champions, as well as Olympic gold medallists Argentina and European Champions Netherlands are among the favourites.
Danny Kerry is going into his second World Cup of the calendar year. After taking England’s Women to the quarter finals back in July he is relishing the challenge ahead after becoming the men’s head coach mid-way through August.
“It’s quite exciting. Personally it’s my second World Cup in a short space of time and that’s a huge workload. However the fellas have been fantastic in terms of their openness and their willingness to try and that’s made it a really enjoyable experience over the last eight weeks. We’re looking forward to it.”
Kerry enjoyed incredible success at the helm of the Great Britain women’s programme, winning the 2015 European Championships with England and then the 2016 Olympics with Great Britain. After men’s head coach Bobby Crutchley stepped down in May, Kerry jumped at the chance to take up the task of moving England’s men up the world rankings from their current standing of seventh.
The World Cup is Kerry’s first major squad announcement in the role and he has not shirked the big decisions. Rio Olympian Henry Weir, a veteran of over 150 international caps is one of the most notable omissions from the squad in favour of some up-and-coming talents such as 21-year-old Jack Waller and 19-year-old Zach Wallace.
“There are a number of people who played in the first half of the cycle in a number of tournaments who have been left out. For them it’s been very tough. Those guys have trained hard and they’ve been diligent but unfortunately with the new squad and the way we’ve been playing it’s created some pressure across the lines, so some established names have not been selected.” Kerry said.
“I think big picture, really big picture, it’s good that they understand this is the national team and you have to be of a certain standard. You have to progress your game rather than being comfortable that you are just a regular. It’s unfortunate my first major selection is a World Cup but it sets the tone for the rest of my time in the role.”
The selection of Waller and Wallace, both of whom made their senior debuts in October raised a few eyebrows; however Kerry is adamant both are ready for the challenge.
“We’ve basically picked what we think is currently our best 18 rather than looking to the future. The inclusions of the likes of Zach Wallace and Jack Waller are because they’ve been the best players.”
“Jack Waller is what you’d call a modern player. He can play across multiple lines and he’s very comfortable on the ball. His game intellect, skills on the ball, his defensive understanding and therefore his all round game are very good and he has a good temperament.”
“Zach Wallace brings real energy and pace from attacking midfield. His pace is a dangerous commodity and I’m looking forward to him using that at the World Cup.”
At the other end of the scale, Barry Middleton is competing in his fourth World Cup, adding to his record 425 international caps as he closes in on the all-time record of 453 held by the Netherlands’ Teun de Nooijer. Middleton captained England to 2009 European Championship gold and has been a fixture in the side for over 15 years. Kerry, who has worked with his share of England and Great Britain greats such as Alex Danson and Kate Richardson-Walsh, paid tribute to the legendary midfielder:
“It’s not just what you see on the pitch in a match. It’s what players like him bring to every training session and off the field how they deal with other players. Barry is world class in everything he does and would undoubtedly play in any team in the world. It’s been a real privilege for me to work with him.”
Ireland, like England, are under the charge of a new coach, with Dutchman Alexander Cox taking over from Craig Fulton after the latter took up a role with Belgium back in May.
Defender Jonny Bell says that the side hope to continue the feeling of optimism currently surrounding Irish hockey following the women’s team’s incredible run to the World Cup final in the summer.
“We have confidence in ourselves as a group and we have enough strength in the group. We believe in every game we play, if we bring our best any result is possible.”
“The girls have added to the incredible story of Irish hockey over the last five or six years. Both teams are in the top ten in the world, we’ve played at the Olympic Games and the girls did so well at the World Cup so it’s a great time for Irish hockey. All eyes are on that first game against Australia.”
Kerry described the clash between Ireland and England, the final match in the pool, as a “potential hum-dinger” with both having aspirations of reaching the later stages of the tournament.
Inevitably much of the talk will be about reigning champions and world number one side Australia. The Kookaburras won the 2014 final, defeating the Netherlands 6-1 in front of a stunned home crowd. Despite a turnover of players and some tweaks to their playing style they are still expected to pose a significant threat.
Another pre-tournament favourite comes in the form of the European Champions, the Netherlands. The Dutch have been drawn in a potentially tricky pool with Germany, Malaysia and the unpredictable Pakistan but with a side boasting the penalty corner threat of Mink van der Weerden, the goal scoring prowess of Mirco Pruijser, the guile of rising star Jorrit Croon and the recalled Jeroen Hertzberger – a man with over 100 international goals, the Oranje have the firepower to be a threat to anyone.
World number two and Olympic Champions Argentina will also have an eye on the title. Despite an ageing squad with 9 of their 18 players in their 30s, Los Leones can call upon the best drag flicker in world hockey, Gonzalo Peillat. He was the top scorer at the 2014 World Cup with ten goals and helped Argentina to a bronze medal. Then in 2016, his 11 goals earned him the top scorer award at the Olympics and more importantly fired Argentina to the gold medal.
The group stage throws up a number of exciting fixtures, with Germany v Netherlands in Pool D (Wed, 5 Dec 1130am) arguably the pick of the matches. Hosts India’s meeting with world number three Belgium (Sunday 2 Dec, 1330) promises to be a sizzling encounter with an incredible atmosphere in front of a partisan home crowd.
England’s final pool game against Ireland, (Friday 7 Dec 1330) a repeat of the 2015 European Championships bronze medal match could have interesting implications for the crossovers and knockout stages of the tournament.
Can England win the competition? In typical fashion Kerry refuses to be drawn on the topic. Straight batting the question like a seasoned Test cricketer:
“We have to play exceptionally well to get out of the group and beyond that we’ll see where we are. It’s about doing the job to get out of the group and then we’ll reset our goals. It’s not my style to say we’ll win it!”