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Hockey final should showcase drag-flicking at its best

Argentina's Gonzalo Peillat (centre) has usually been the top scorer at every global event he has played. AFP PHOTO / MANAN VATSYAYANA

Penalty corners (PCs) have always been an integral weapon in hockey, more so since the advent of the drag-flick. The ongoing World League Final has seen 34 of 74 goals come from PCs, and Sunday's final pits two of the best exponents, Argentina and Australia, against each other.

Argentina, who have gone from a middling team to Olympic champions, world No. 1 and now World League Final title-contenders, are led by their outstanding drag-flicker Gonzalo Peillat. Blake Govers and Jeremy Hayward have been excellent for Australia, the two of them pulling Australia past Spain 4-1 after trailing 1-0 at one stage in their quarterfinal.

"PC defence is very hard, there's a lot of little things that people don't see, and those make the difference," says Govers. "It helps having someone like Jeremy [Hayward] next to me. When we are both flicking well, it is very hard for them to cover for both. It's just [about] putting the goalie under pressure to make a save."

Matter of speed

A drag-flick is normally fired in at an average speed of 120-125kph for shots aimed at the higher end of the net, says Belgium's Loick Luypaert, top scorer at the World League Final with eight goals. "It's a lot of hours and now we train sometimes 30 or 45 minutes longer than the others. It's a rough skill to learn. It looks like a really complicated movement, so you need to stay calm and execute under pressure," says Luypaert.

Consider for a moment the pressure on a drag-flicker leading up to a PC, needing to switch on from the moment the ball is injected, to beating the runner, goalkeeper and place a ball into a target no wider than 12 feet. "You don't put that in your mind, you don't even put the crowd in your mind. The last corner I had, it just felt like me in the backyard kind of thing," Govers said after scoring one of Australia's goals in a 2-2 draw with England. "[If] you have that in your mind and you put the ball where it needs to go, and the goalie makes the save, then you can be happy with it."

"It's more and more a tactical game, because it's not any more that you just flick and just hopefully score. You really have to look for tactics -- what to flick, how to flick, from which castle and how to bring in variations. Look how they defend. It's more of a study than just a flick," says Mink van der Weerden, the latest in a long line of outstanding Dutch flickers.

Role of the runner

A runner is perhaps the toughest job in hockey, as it involves rushing out as soon as the ball is pushed in, or injected, and cutting the angle down for the flicker. The runner has to close the angle to help the goalkeeper and the defender on the left post (goalkeepers in hockey are only allowed to hold the stick in their right hand).

"It is important to get as close as possible to the ball-carrier, [so] that it cannot hit your knees or higher up. It is important that you keep looking towards the ball and not turn your body," says Netherlands' Sander Baart, who filled in as runner in the absence of his teammate Sander de Wijn. "Sometimes it can hit a sore place. That's part of the job. You always hope that you don't get injured, but luckily you don't get hit a lot." Hayward says any time off is spent on analysing how the next opponent will approach PCs, doubly so in his case as he is usually the first runner in addition to being a flicker for Australia. "We spend most of our times on the laptops [or] watching their games on TV," he says, admitting that sometimes both flickers and the defence have to think on their feet. "The hardest thing is to play your natural game and to get that balance right."

A good example of that came in Argentina's 1-0 win over India in the semi-finals on Friday, when Peillat scored with a PC when the injection was made closer to the head of the 'D', keeping in mind the amount of rain that had fallen on the Kalinga Stadium pitch. One of the strongest flickers in the world game for a few years now, Peillat has usually been the top scorer at every global event he has played. His form in Bhubaneswar has been relatively subdued, but his battle in the final against Australia will still be a fascinating one.