By Adam Clifford
This weekend’s Sultana Bran Hockey One League Main Event isn’t just a coming together of the best hockey players in the world but presents a rare opportunity for Bendigo locals to witness firsthand the real cream of the crop in world sport generally.
The Kookaburras and Hockeyroos are among the best teams in the world at their craft, renowned for their all-action on-field performances and their unquestioned professionalism and commitment to growing the game off-field.
But little is truly understood outside the inner sanctum of high-performance hockey about just how athletically gifted and finely tuned their planning and preparation is – rivalling more high-profile and higher renumerated sporting stars across the globe.
There can be little doubt that the buzz around the Hockey One League coming to Bendigo, it represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for sports fans of all codes to witness first-hand the very best in the business.
The athletic prowess of an elite hockey player is particularly impressive when compared to other sports.
Take for example NSW Pride star Tom Craig who holds a personal best 40m sprint time of just 4.94 seconds wearing hockey boots on a synthetic hockey pitch.
This is comparable with former Arsenal Football Club legend Thierry Henry, who mustered a personal best of 4.84 seconds, but was clocked running on high-performance athletics track and wearing sprinters spikes.
In 2015 it was publicly reported that Tassie Tigers defender Tim Deavin had achieved a beep test score of 16.11, sitting well clear of the AFL’s Draft Combine record at that time of 16.06 by former Hawthorn player Billy Hartung.
Deavin famously also recording a seven-site skinfold score of just 32mm before the 2016 Rio de Janiero Olympic Games in preparation for playing back-to-back games over the tournament, whilst he also undertook additional voluntary pitch sessions to rehearse as a stand-in goalkeeper in the event of an emergency situation arising.
Around that same time, Canberra Chill forward Glenn Turner had a recorded bench press of more than 150kg, superior to many AFL players such as Steven May and Daniel Rich who maxed out at 140kg.
But high-performance programs have moved somewhat away from regular and regimented testing of their athletes to a modern-day program of continual conditioning and enhanced focus on skills and structures, in response to increased matches and tournaments throughout the year.
“Hockey athletes can perform at similar or higher levels than most professional sports, whilst being paid significantly less and working at the same time,” Hockeyroos Physical Performance Manager Nicolai Morris says.
“In my experience, hockey athletes are also able to hit both extremes of fit and fast.”
“As such, I think the physical capacities are most similar to rugby 7’s players, albeit hockey players carry less size because they have to play sixty-minute games versus rugby 7’s fourteen-minute total match length.”
Amongst the Hockeyroos squad, the record YoYo testing score is 20.4 held by Brisbane Blaze Stephanie Kershaw narrowly ahead of teammate Rosie Malone (20.2).
The pair’s efforts smashed the AFLW joint record of 18.1 and is a whole level about USA Soccer star and record holder Kelley O’Hara of 19.1.
In the speed stakes, Adelaide Fire skipper Jane Claxton is the fastest current Hockeyroo and is known to have broken Hockeyroos coach Trini Powell’s 0-10m best time, and her incredible work ethic has seen her increase her speed into her late twenties (Note: Claxton turned 30 years old last month).
“The Hockeyroos players would outrun most full-time team sport athletes in both speed and endurance,” Morris adds.
“As a squad their averages are much higher than I’ve seen in other team sports and the elite outliers are up with the best of the best.
“Specifically, in a women’s Hockey One League game they can get as high as 140-150m covered per minute in a game, whereas even in men’s rugby league they typically top out around 110m per minute.”
The women’s league is also littered with sporting prodigies that could have chosen more lucrative sporting careers, if not for their love of the sport.
“Malone was a national junior soccer player who was invited to a senior Matildas camp to train with players like Sam Kerr, Penny Squibb (Perth Thundersticks) was a state javelin champion and Grace Stewart (NSW Pride) played touch football with many Aussie rugby 7’s players and would have made a great 7’s player,” Morris shares.
It’s a similar story in the men’s high-performance program with Brendyn Appleby sharing the extraordinary physical toll on the Kookaburras players to achieve Commonwealth Games gold in Birmingham earlier this year.
“The Kookaburras played five games in just seven days; playing Scotland, New Zealand, rest day, South Africa, Pakistan, rest day, before the semi-final versus England,” Appleby explains.
“The squad averaged a total of 30.3km in their four hours of on-pitch time, across those five matches, and that was just the average of the full squad.”
“I think to put that in perspective, the pitch is only 91m long by 55m with 10 field players. There is not a lot of space to run compared to an AFL or soccer, and both games are far longer in duration.”
“The other thing that stands out to me about hockey players is simply the fine motor control to hit and trap at speed, under fatigue – it’s amazing!” Appleby adds.
Appleby is also quick to reinforce the dedication and commitment of the Kookaburras athletes, who juggle 6:30am turf sessions five times a week, head to their day jobs before returning in the afternoons to complete their gym and fitness programs.
Take for instance, Canberra Chill goalkeeper Andrew Charter who was labelled a quite uncoordinated as a young teenager and is now the Kookaburras most capped goalkeeper, renowned for his incredible reflexes and speed, and juggles full-time employment after qualifying as an engineer.
But the Kookaburras dedication to their rehabilitation is similarly incredible with Flynn Ogilvie (NSW Pride) ripping his hamstring off the bone which required surgery to reattach and Matt Dawson (NSW Pride) famously competing at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in specially designed glasses after being struck in the face prior to the tournament.
“Daniel Beale (Brisbane Blaze) also had significant hip surgery in July 2020, once the Olympics was finally postponed, and it took him seven months to return to full training, whilst Blake Govers (NSW Pride) tore his groin during Hockey One in 2019 that similarly required a long-time to recover.”
“But all these guys played at Tokyo (Olympic Games) and Birmingham (Commonwealth Games), demonstrating how resilient and determined these players are, despite still being ‘amateur’ athletes,” Appleby adds.
But far from being merely an exhibition in incredible physical capabilities, the tactical and technical skills implemented by the Australian men’s hockey team have been world leading – the envy of many high-profile team sports around the globe.
Their various forward pressing structures have been analysed, dissected and coveted by major soccer clubs for more than a decade, with the ruthless formation marshalled by Brisbane Blaze’s Tim Howard the same ‘freeman or sweeper’ role television commentators have coined the ‘quarterback’ role in AFL circles.
And yet the piece de resistance of hockey lies in the penalty corner skills of the Hockey One League’s best and most powerful exponents of the penalty corner drag flick.
NSW Pride’s Govers, Brisbane Blaze’s Joel Rintala, Perth Thunderstick’s Liam Flynn and Canberra Chill’s James Day can all propel the hockey ball at speeds of up to 125km/hr, yet with centimetre-perfect precision after initially disguising the intended target area.
Spare a thought for the defender trapped with an obscured view, protecting only by some plastic over their shins, face and groin, some knee guards and gloves with the ball released just over ten yards away. Then imagine applying that scenario to a cricket match and consider the scenes that would follow…
So, when you consider what’s in front of you, the Sultana Bran Hockey One League is an awe inspiring coming together of competitive beasts, physical specimens, and tactical prowess.
Put simply, that means catching the action either live in Bendigo this Saturday and Sunday, or alternatively tuning into Fox Sports, is simply an unmissable opportunity for any true sports fan.