Hockeyroos ready to take on the world again
PAUL Gaudoin had a big task when he took control of the Hockeyroos after the Rio Olympics.
Not only was he taking on a women's team for the first time, something he described simply as "very different", but he inherited a team low on confidence after a disappointing Olympic campaign.
It was also a team that had lost trust in the coaching staff and organisation after former coach Adam Commens was dismissed for misconduct for allegedly exposing himself to players following the hockey finals at the Games.
Slowly, the team is finding its way again.
A fourth place at the World Cup in London last month, in which they pushed powerhouse nation the Netherlands to a penalty shootout in the semi-final, is evidence of the progress.
Hockeyroos veteran Emily Smith said it hasn't been an easy rebuild, but things were starting to click.
"Everyone is starting to work together now and it's the same as any new relationship, you have to work on it and be constantly learning about each other and knowing what works for each other," Smith said.
"I think we've come a long way. I won't say it was smooth sailing from the start but we didn't think it would be.
"He'd never coached a women's team and we're 30 women who are really passionate and organised and want everything to be written out for us, as you can imagine. This is our life and our goal and we want to know and need to be organised … He quickly learnt that we need to know all the details well in advance."
Australians came to assume success for the Hockeyroos after years as the dominant force in world hockey throughout the 1990s.
Gold medals were almost a given. They won at Seoul (1988), Atlanta (1996) and Sydney (2000) Olympic Games. The team took home World Cups in 1994 and 1998; they were runners-up in 2010. And there have been consistent medals at Commonwealth Games, but little on the world stage in recent times.
A superficial response would be to question the program itself for the drop in world rankings and having medals and trophies dry up, but it's more complicated than that.
"You talk about the golden age of the mid to late 90s where it was very strong … it was the start of a long, very strong centralised program with good financial support which enabled not just a playing group of 16 but the squad of close to 30 be able to train together, which was different in women's hockey at that stage," said Gaudoin, who won bronze medals with the Kookaburras in 1996 and 2000.
"At the moment, certainly everyone is having the ability to centralise; footage and knowledge of what other teams are doing is via the net etc, everything is out there and a lot more readily available … It's created a bigger group of teams vying for spots in the top few positions."
So the Hockeyroos need to adapt.
They're yet to land on the answer, but know being willing to innovate will get them ahead, just as the team did all those years ago.
"The game has changed a lot the last 10 to 15 years, with all the rule changes that have gone on," said Smith, who's represented Australia 206 times.
"Back when the Hockeyroos first started, they were the first team to bring in 'we've got a good team we'll rotate everyone' through … Australia were the innovators in Ric Charlesworth having a squad where anyone could play any position. I think that's where they made their biggest gain and won tournaments."
"You have to be innovative and try new things. It's very close and I'm not sure what we're going to do that is going to be the difference but I guess that's for us and our coaching staff to work hard and have a good think about what we need to do."
The team's next challenge is in Japan next week for a Four Nations tournament with South Korea and the US too. The end goal, though, is gold - in Tokyo.
Gaudoin knows rankings will go up and down, but top spot on that Olympic podium is the ultimate for any hockey team.
It's a definite possibility for Australia, but won't be without it's challenges.
"If you're pushing the number one team in the world to a penalty shootout after the normal time, I think that gives us great belief in what we can achieve. There's no question we still have an awful lot to do, but it allows us to dream big and believe we can do," Gaudoin said of the team's effort at the recent World Cup.
"Now we have to get down and do the hard work to make that dream a reality.
"Yeah, I think [gold in Tokyo] is achievable but I know we have a young group and sometimes that takes time to develop."