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Belgium Red Panthers show their bite and Australia win Pool D after classic continental clash

July 28, 2018

An epic test of strength and resilience saw Australia (World Ranking:5) overcome their Oceania rivals New Zealand(WR:4) to finish top of Pool D. In yet another twist to this fascinating Vitality Hockey Women's World Cup, the lowest ranked team in the pool, Belgium (WR:15) finished second in the pool and Japan (WR:12) made an early exit from the competition.

The result means New Zealand will play Argentina (WR:3) in the crossover match and Belgium will play European rivals Spain (WR:11). Australia join Ireland and Germany in qualifying straight through to the quarter finals. 

 Verve, energy, innovation – Belgium have improved with every game and this was the Red Panthers at their best. Japan came to the party and played their role in a nine-goal thriller but this was the performance that Belgium have been working towards. 

As Anouk Raes acknowledged, they are one of the lower ranked teams but in this tournament they have not looked out of place at any stage. "We played very well against both New Zealand [lost 4-2] and Australia [0-0] but we had targeted this game because we are close to Japan in the rankings," said the Belgium captain.

It was a must-win match for Belgium who, despite drawing against Australia, were in danger of exiting the tournament because of other results. For Japan, a draw would suffice. The 6-3 result was Belgium's highest score in a World Cup, their previous was a 5-0 win over Italy in 1976, when they finished in fourth place.

More importantly for this generation of players, it meant qualification through to the cross over matches, at the expense of the immensely likeable Japanese squad.

The match started at a high tempo that never really abated. It was Japan who put in the first serious attempt on goal. The shot from Shihori Oikawa was picked out by Aisling D'Hooghe in the Belgium goal, with the lithe 'keeper dropping to her right to stop the shot.

Japan had shown what they could do with a win over New Zealand and a close 3-2 encounter with Australia but, on this occasion, they were up against a Red Panthers team who had brought their A-game.

Belgium shot into a 2-0 lead before 20 minutes had passed. The first goal came from a slick penalty corner routine. Judith Vandermeiren was on the end of a three pass routine which left the Japanese defence chasing shadows.

The next two goals were all part of the Jill Boon show. First the Red Panther's striker, who was voted Vitality Player of the Match, latched onto a ball that flew into the Japanese circle, her deflection sending the ball high into the goal, well out of reach of Megumi Kageyama.

The third Belgium goal was scored by Anne-Sophie Weyns, but the hard work was done by Boon, who neatly wrong-footed a defender to clear the way for a perfect pass to the waiting Weyns.

Kageyama went some way towards rectifying the error when she saved at point blank range from Louise Versavel, but she was not able to do anything about Versavel's next move which saw her outwit the defence to score a neat goal – her second of the tournament.

"We came into the tournament with no pressure and we have played really well, even in the 4-2 loss. The team confidence is very high right now" Anouk Raes, Belgium

Japan gave their World Cup dreams momentary hope when they scored a penalty corner after a great move by Japan forced a foul in the circle. Akiko Kato was on hand to slot the ball home.

Louise Versavel increased her tally five minutes later after she picked up on a cross by Pauline Leclef. By now the striker knew exactly where the goal was and she slammed home with composure. Eight minutes later, Versavel scored her hat trick as she converted another Belgium corner.

One of the features so far of this World Cup has been the ability of some of the teams to produce some innovative penalty corner routines and Belgium showed a couple of beauties in this match.

Japan have delighted the spectators with their approach to the competition and the neutrals in the crowd were delighted when the Cherry Blossoms scored two more goals in the final 10 minutes. First Kana Nomura strode into the circle and slammed a straightforward penalty corner shot past D'Hooghe and then Hazuki Nagai added her name to the score sheet with a neatly finished penalty corner.

"We are so pleased," said Raes. "Our goalkeeper was excellent and her first save provided the momentum for that performance. We came into the tournament with no pressure and we have played really well, even in the 4-2 loss to New Zealand. The team confidence is very high right now."

New Zealand versus Australia is never a dull fixture and there was a lot riding on this game. Both teams were seeking the win that would put them at the top of Pool D and hence straight through to the quarter-finals.

For Australia, who started the day on four points, a draw was enough. For New Zealand, who had lost to Japan, only a win would do if they were to either win the pool or move ahead of Belgium into second place.

New Zealand took the lead in the 13th minute when Olivia Merry pounced on a rebound after Rachael Lynch had saved from Kelsey Smith. The joy was short-lived however as just five minutes later Emily Smith made a great run through the New Zealand defence and put the ball over Sally Rutherford in the Black Stick's goal.

Samantha Harrison thought she had put her team ahead when she struck the ball high into the Hockeyroos net but on referral she was adjudged to have used the back of the stick.

A big half was called for from the players and, as so often for Black Sticks it was Stacey Michelsen who answered the call. The powerful midfielder strode through the ranks of Australia players to set up a shot for Samantha Harrison and it was Michelsen herself who nearly hit the rebound home, her shot fizzed wide of Lynch's goal.

Michelsen's example fired up those around her and the next player to test Lynch was Merry. A quick break – is there any other – from Anita McLaren, followed by a cross found Merry in front of goal and unmarked. Her shot was well saved by Lynch.

Jodie Kenny had the chance to put the game to rest as she stepped up to take a penalty corner after some good work by Emily Hurtz to win the corner. Kenny's shot was stopped by Rutherford, and cleared by the Black Sticks defence.

The resulting draw was just rewards for two teams who really couldn't be separated. It was a point conceded by Maddy Fitzpatrick, who said the two teams know each other so well that any encounter is always hard-fought and close. "We had plenty of chances but then so did New Zealand."

"We worked hard but the lines [between defence, midfield and forward] were perhaps a little too close so we couldn't play our game," said Michelesen. New Zealand are renowned for bringing out the big game in the latter stages of a competition and there was steely determination in the eyes of the New Zealand captain as she declared that her team would be ready for Argentina on 30 July.

Day 7: Results
Spain v Germany 1-3
Argentina v South Africa 1-1
Japan v Belgium 2-6
New Zealand v Australia 1-1


The action continues on Sunday 29 July at the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre as a full day of action sees the pool action draw to an exciting finale. Korea (WR:9) face China (WR:8) at 11:00 (BST). Then it is Netherlands (WR:1) against China (WR:17) at 13:00. India (WR:10) will play USA (WR:7) at 17:00, and then England (WR:2) go head-to-head with Ireland at 19:00.

For all news and schedules for the Vitality Hockey Women's World Cup, click here.

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