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'Crazy, stupid, brave': Meet hockey's first runners

France's Victor Charlet (R) prepares for the worst as he races out of his line against Spain DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images

With just five minutes to go until the final whistle of New Zealand's clash against Argentina at the Hockey World Cup on Monday night, a penalty corner is awarded against the black shirts.

As soon as he sees the umpire's signal, Blair Tarrant rushes behind the goal to strap on his knee pads, groin cup and face mask. As the first runner for New Zealand, he has got a job to do - stop Gonzalo Peillat from scoring.

There's a swagger in Peillat's walk up to the striking circle, as would be expected of someone who is considered the undisputed king of the drag flick in international hockey. Numbers back that. Peillat has 159 goals from 132 international games and he almost single-handedly won the 2016 Olympic gold for his side.

Peillat routinely propels the ball upwards of a bone-shattering 80 mph as it rockets towards the goal. While the hockey ball weighs about as much as the cricket one (163 grams), it is only travelling about half the distance (13.12 yards to be precise) of a cricket pitch before it crosses the goal line.

Tarrant's job is to stop that from happening. And to do that, he has to, against all normal human instincts for self-preservation, charge out towards Peillat even as the Argentinian corkscrews for his swing.

Where Peillat's job usually inspires awe among hockey fans, Tarrant's induces wincing sympathy, especially among his compatriots in the tribe known as first runners. "It's not a fun job. It's hard knowing that Peillat is in the other team," Spain's first runner Alvarado Iglesias says.

While the drag flick has always been the most crucial set piece in hockey, the art of defending against it has also gained greater importance in recent years.

"The first runner's job is to get as close to the drag flicker as possible and reduce his target for scoring. If the runner blocks a side, he will force the flicker to hit to a predictable side. That makes it easier for the goalkeeper," says former India international Jugraj Singh, who has performed both roles.

While the screens and walls formed by human bodies are common across sports, there are not many that actually require players to run towards a streaking missile as hockey does of its first runners. Injuries are very common, as would be expected when a hard cork crunches into skin, muscle and bone.

Under coach Kim Sang-Ryul, South Korea used the drag flick to great effect and infamy in the semifinal of the 2000 Olympics. Using their bodies, they blocked 11 penalty corners taken by Sohail Abbas, running straight at the Pakistani flicker. They won the match, but paid a steep price. Three of their runners were stretchered off injured, and one would never play internationally again.

Belgium's coach Shane McLeod still has a scar above his left eye from back in 1999 when he was struck while defending a penalty corner. Jugraj still bears the mark of the time Abbas struck him on the knee at the 2003 Champions Trophy causing him to be taken off the field. The introduction of better protective gear has helped only to a certain extent - England defender Chris Griffiths had to miss the World Cup after sustaining a foot injury while defending a short corner.

Amongst their compatriots, the first runner elicits a bit of awe.

"To be the first runner, you have to be crazy, I think. It's the worst job of the lot," says England's Barry Middleton, who stands at the post while teammate Liam Sanford rushes forward. "You want to get the ball. You don't just want to get near the ball. So your last step is to go where you think the ball is going. People who don't play don't understand how much bravery or stupidity goes into doing that. Because your whole mind is telling not to do what you are about to do."

England goalkeeper George Pinner agrees: "You got to be very brave. Us goalkeepers are covered in pads from head to toe. These guys have cups, gloves and knee guards. That's it."

While bravery is fundamental, there are other useful qualities too. "You need to be fast. The faster you get to the flicker the lesser time they have to take their stroke," says Netherlands coach Max Caldas.

Runners have to train for their role. "The more you do it, the better you get. To make it easier we use tennis balls so that they can only concentrate on the movements," says Caldas.

While it is a role their team-mates are thankful that they play, the runners themselves are not fond of being in that position. "Actually I didn't chose to be a first runner. I don't like it at all. I know I can be hit and I have been hit too. But I know the team needs me there," says Spain's Iglesias.

And so when the referee signals for a penalty corner, Iglesias will put on his protective bits of plastic and get on with it. "The adrenaline gets you through it in a match. I'll run at the ball although sometimes I will close my eyes and think, 'please please go to the other side'".

That doesn't happen as much as he would want it to though. The fact that runners these days have at least a bare minimum of protection helps a bit although Middleton says it sometimes has the other effect.

"In some ways it's better because it keeps out the big ones (injuries). But in some other ways it's not because you feel a bit braver so you take a few more risks and get a few more hits in the places that aren't really covered too. It's a bit of a conundrum," he says.

Getting hit is a guarantee, so Iglesias simply hopes the blows are felt on the less painful parts of the anatomy.

"If you are fast enough, you won't get hit on the face but it's really painful if you are too quick and the ball hits you on the feet. Normally if you are close to the flicker, the ball doesn't go higher than the knee.

"Sometimes you get hit on the thigh and that's alright because that's the muscle. So you just slap it a couple of times and it is okay. But if it hits on the foot, it pains a lot because there is no protection there. Some teams use some sort of iron plate in the foot but we (Spain) don't . One time I was hit so hard, my foot turned black and I couldn't walk for two days."

A foot injury is of course far more preferable to being hit in the more tender region further north.

"At the European Championships against Belgium, Loick Lutpaert hit me in the upper thigh and the ball deflected right into my b****. I've never been more grateful to wear a cup," says Iglesias.

The adrenaline carried him through that moment. As did the realisation he had made a significant contribution to his team. "It's the same feeling as if you have scored a goal. When you save a penalty corner it feels very rewarding. And if you use your stick, that's perfect."

That's what Jugraj Singh feels too. After limping out of the field following the Abbas whack, he soon returned to the field after a bit of magic spray.

"Now when I look at that mark, I feel a sense of pride, that I was able to contribute to my team," he says. Jugraj had another reason to get back on the field - he was the team's premier drag flicker as well and could return the favour. "After making a save you think you can do even better and score a goal."

As someone who served on both sides of the job, Jugraj bears no hard feelings towards any of the flickers who have struck him. "You know they don't want to hit you. In fact they are hoping they don't hit you and hit the goal instead."

That's exactly what happened in the match between New Zealand and Argentina. Tarrant charged out at the line to block Peillat's strike, only for the Argentinian to casually slip the ball to Isadoro Ibarra. Ibarra's strike would be blocked but the rebound would eventually be hit into the goal.

There were no positives for Tarrant: "I don't know what hurts more, to get hit by the ball or to concede a goal anyway."