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How well-armored first rushers are successfully fending off PCs at the 2023 Hockey World Cup

Harmanpreet Singh has only scored in the World Cup when there was no goalkeeper present.

On Thursday, with seconds remaining in the game, Wales elected to substitute an extra outfield player for goalkeeper Toby Reynolds-Cotterill. Instead of scoring an equaliser, they conceded a penalty corner for the sixth time in the contest.

Wales has successfully defended the previous six. With only four defenders to defeat, Harmanpreet kept his shot simple: straight, low, and centre. It was India’s third goal in 16 penalty corner efforts at the World Cup, which is a disappointing return for a side that devotes so much time and effort into the set piece.

However, India is not alone.

Some of the best practitioners of the skill of drag-flicking appear to have abandoned it, as teams have struggled to capitalise on what was previously a solid goal-scoring method for them. Think about these:

* Germany naturalised a former Argentine international mostly due to his performance in penalty corners. However, they have only converted one of seven corners prior to Friday’s encounter against South Korea, and Gonzalo Peillat has yet to score.

* Alexander Hendrickx is one of the top drag-flickers in the world. However, like Harmanpreet, he has yet to score, and the defending world champions’ record from corners is worse than India’s, with only two goals scored in 18 tries.

This mirrors a broader pattern. Before Friday’s games, only 32 goals out of 195 penalty corner opportunities had been scored at this World Cup. A conversion rate of one in every three penalty corners is considered standard by most coaches. One in six penalty corners are successful at Odisha 2023, making it one of the lowest conversion rates in the history of the World Cup.

First-stringers save more than goalies.

The coaches appear confident about the cause of this downturn. According to them, it has nothing to do with the quality of drag-flicking. Instead, it is the strengthened defense. Specifically, the initial rushers

First rushers are arguably the most gutsy players in the sport of hockey. As the name suggests, they are the first players off the blocks from the four-man defence, excluding the goalie, during short corners, sprinting directly at the ball that is frequently flicked at speeds exceeding 100 kilometres per hour.

The job of the rusher is to narrow the angle by sprinting the 12m from the goal line, where he is positioned, to the top of the defensive zone, from which the flick is taken, within seconds. If you react slowly, even by a hundredth of a second, you endanger yourself or your team.

India’s analytical coach, Gregg Clark, mentions the ‘amazing’ rushing of former captain Manpreet Singh against England and Belgium’s Victor Wegnez as examples of players willing to put their bodies on the line.

Coach Jeroen Delmee of the Netherlands claims that rushers are currently saving more flicks than goalkeepers. “This is the primary cause,” Delmee explains, referring to the manner they block the shot. “About fifty percent of shots are blocked by the first runner. Therefore, I believe the first runner is currently stopping more shots than the goalies.”

It’s not a coincidence. Like penalties in football, teams are devoting an increasing amount of effort to analysing their opponents’ drag-flick routines and then training for it. Each team spends at least 15 minutes at the conclusion of a training session practising penalty corner attack and defence.

Statistics from a defensive viewpoint

Paul Revington, the head coach of England, notes that the presentation of short corners, particularly by broadcasters, makes them appear more dangerous than they actually are.

“Typically, all statistics are provided for the offensive team,” explains Revington. “I believe it will be interesting if a player’s defensive statistics are displayed on television. It is crucial to observe the quality of the running, waves, and lines in other sports.

The incremental rule modifications that now permit defenders to wear protective equipment have made it easier to defend penalty corners and led to the decline in conversion rates.

Prior to a decade ago, athletes could only wear gloves and a flimsy face mask. Now, though, they have a whole kit behind the goal, which they don during the 40-second stoppage to take corners.

The FIH is concerned that the equipment could provide players a false sense of security when defending corners. However, these concerns have thus far proven baseless. In contrast, it has levelled the playing field in at least one area of the game.

Wales could not compete with India’s individual skill and style. However, when it came to penalty corners, their defensive battery was up to the challenge. They frustrated Harmanpreet, whose attempts either did not leave the ground or were rejected by the defenders and goalkeeper. Even the one-dimensional films of Amit Rohidas and Varun Kumar were effectively barred.

It remains to be seen whether India is holding back some of their tactics and variations in preparation for the World Cup’s knockout stage.

Still, it will not be simple. “Just the quality of the World Cup,” adds Dutch coach Delmee. You have the best runners and goalies, which makes it difficult.


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