Hockeyroos’ quest to end Olympic medal drought spoiled by quarter-final defeat to India

Edwina Bone is used to talking about her team. As the Hockeyroos captain and a veteran of one Olympics and two Commonwealth Games, the practice is routine and rarely one requiring much emotional exertion.

On Monday, though, when asked to speak about her Australian side, she stalled, managed to say, “They’re … I’m just really proud of them”, and then stepped briefly away from the Channel Seven camera to compose herself before the sobs came.

Bone was stunned, still startled and stupefied by an India team which had just made the semi-finals on skill and mettle and in doing so spoiled – yet again – the Hockeyroos’ quest for a first Olympic medal since 2000. Five years worth of tears were shed at Oi Hockey Stadium when the full-time horn sounded the end of the road. Tears of both ruin and rapture, as an Australian side still carrying the remnants of the national team program’s recent tumult crumpled under expectation and their Indian counterparts watched history blossom before their very eyes.

“It’s just a shame to end it this way,” Bone said. “We’ve worked really hard. We’ve come together as a united group, under a really inspirational leader. Trini [Hockeyroos coach Katrina Powell] showed us the way because she’s done it before. It’s just a shame that it’s over.”

India were not supposed to beat Australia. A team ranked ninth in the world and contesting only their third Games do not oust one ranked second with four decades of Olympic experience. But this 1-0 quarter-final was unlike perhaps any other, an upset to rival all women’s hockey upsets.

The Hockeyroos had won all five previous matches in Tokyo, conceding a single goal. Twenty-two minutes into this encounter they had shipped their second, as a Gurjit Kaur drag flick bobbled home on 22 minutes. Australia did find their feet in the third quarter but still India frustrated them, held their shape and robbed them of time and space.

Their inability to convert numerous short corners played a large part in the defeat, though Rosie Malone did hit the post after 90 seconds. But it was the work of Savita Punia, the India goalkeeper who saved eight penalty corners and redefined the common definition of “wall”.

Australia’s exit caps a period of disturbance and disorder in camp which included complaints and ended with the resignation of former coach Paul Gaudoin and an external review that found the sport had a “dysfunctional culture and leadership”. Still, the encouraging start in Tokyo under Powell had brimmed with possibility.

“We’ve had a massive 18 months and our team has had to go through so much stuff off the field that I’m so proud of,” Malone said. “It really felt like the way we were playing this was going to all come together at the end for us and make it all worth it.

“There’s a lot of excitement for the future of the Hockeyroos and I think we are heading in the right direction with our team and our sport. I know that this will just make all of us even stronger, but right now thinking about waiting another few years to try and chase our dream is a bit hard to swallow.

“It just felt like one of those days where things just weren’t really going our way and some of the chances that we got in other games would have gone in.”

Five years ago in Rio, India, in their first Olympics appearance since 1980, were winless and finished last. At Tokyo 2020 they will play for a medal for the first time in a semi-final against Argentina.

“I can’t believe it … I knew we could do it but you still have to,” said India coach Sjoerd Marijne. “Today the defence was very good and then we got one chance and we made it. I’m very happy for Gurjit because if she doesn’t score she gets a lot of comments [from critics]. I kept telling her ‘listen, you only need one goal to make a difference in one match’ and today she showed it.”