It was a clever bit of deception that saw Spain score the first direct penalty corner (PC) goal at the 2018 Hockey World Cup, an effort that put them 2-1 up against Olympic champions Argentina. Alvaro Iglesias' push was trapped by Sergi Enrique. Pau Quemada then shaped to take the strike but simply ran over the ball, which Enrique pushed to Josep Romeu to the left of goal. With Argentina's first runner Lucas Rossi committed to running at Quemada, Romeu was left to take an unhurried flick that beat the outstretched left glove of goalkeeper Juan Vivaldi.
Ever since their introduction to field hockey, drag flicks have been seen as one of the sport's showcase skills and goals scored through them are one of the highlights of any match. Yet over the years, the actual success rate of the technique has steadily dipped. At the 1998 World Cup for example, 116 goals were scored off the 250 penalty corners awarded over the course of 84 games. And while it's still early days at the 2018 edition, it's unlikely teams are going to come anywhere near that astounding strike rate of 46.4 percent.
Romeu's strike was only the third goal in 20 penalty corners awarded over three games in the tournament. Of those, an unusually high number (7) were missed by Belgium alone. And while the Belgians claimed they had had a bad day, there are increasing precedents for this lowered efficiency of conversion. At the Breda Champions Trophy against India, they had one successful PC strike in eight attempts.
Players and coaches are aware that the days of easy hunting are over. "Teams are defending better. Goalkeepers are learning faster. You see the first runner (the defender standing closest to the pusher) taking the glove side and the goalkeeper taking the stick side. It makes it harder to score. There is a lot of video footage out there and teams are more aware of which side we will be striking now, " says Belgian striker Tom Boon.
Canada captain Scott Tupper, a veteran of 286 matches, believes the tide has been slowly shifting in favour of short corner defenders. "I think just the defence is catching up to the offence. Goalkeepers are just getting better and better and better," says Tupper, who stood at the post for Canada against Belgium.
He says the fact that drag flicking was so effective early helped countermeasures to develop too.
"I think there are more elite drag flickers in the world today. In the past when you showed up to a tournament there would be two or three players who are world class and surprised all the goalies. Now the 'keeper trains every day with elite flickers at the club or national level so it isn't as much of a surprise anymore," says Tupper.
Tupper also says the increased readiness of the first runner to charge out at the drag flicker following the introduction of protective gear has also contributed. "The big change has been in how the runners have adapted. They used to just put their stick out and hope for the best. Now they are actively taking the goal away with their legs and stick right on top of the ball. That makes it easier for the keeper because he can take one side of the goal and it also makes it more frustrating for the flicker because he can see the runner getting bigger and he might almost be running into him a little bit," says Tupper.
England coach Danny Kerry says he first noticed the relatively reduced effectiveness of the drag flick around six years ago, when he was coach of the Great Britain's women's team. "I think the women's side of things started doing it earlier and better. The men have started to understand it and now worked on it hard. And it's also difficult to do. For the women, after 2012, the defence started to dominate. For the men it was possibly in 2014 when we noticed that the change was starting to occur," says Kerry.
As such, coaches and players are starting to scale down their expectations from the drag flick. "If you score anything around one in three goals it is a very good percentage," says Boon.
While it might not be as effective, Canada's Tupper says the arms race between offence and defence isn't over. "It (the drag flick) will just evolve," he says. "That's the nature of things. The flickers were quite a bit ahead of the defence. Right now, the defence is catching up a little bit. Flickers will start to evolve too. You will start seeing flickers curve the drag of the ball and try to bend it around the first runner. Maybe they will try to be a little more deceptive in what they are doing," he says.
Kerry says the subtlety of those variations means that they might be saved for use towards the business end of the tournament rather than at the start, where they could be studied. "With the improved defence, in the women's and men's game, variation routines will become more important and teams will have to decide whether to use those variations earlier in the tournament or later. Yesterday you had Belgium have a lot of PCs but were leading so didn't change the variations. I think if they were playing the semis or finals, they would have changed things out. They wouldn't have kept going straight because it wasn't working," he says.
Of course when done right, even the straight and hard drag flick has immense value. "Someone like Gonzalo Peillat will still be successful even with all the improvements in defence. He just hits the ball a lot harder than others. It's still very difficult to stop him," says Kerry.
Peillat, who almost single-handedly won Argentina the Olympic gold with his drag flicks in 2016, proved just that in the game against Spain. He scored his side's second goal courtesy a strike that went right through the keeper's legs and then added another goal off his third attempt of the match, playing a key part in Argentina's 4-3 win.
Peillat would remain modest about his efforts. "Everyone is doing their best. Today was my day. Maybe tomorrow it would be the goalkeeper's day," he says.