09.06.2015, Brussels: With less than 24hrs to the World League Semi-Finals in Valencia, Women, meet the teams hoping to make Rio2016!
The first of the Women’s Hockey World League Semi-Finals is less than 24hrs away from bursting into life in Valencia, so here we meet the teams who will be contesting Pool A.

The importance of these Semi-Final events is unquestionable. The top three teams are guaranteed places at both the showcase end-of-year Hockey World League Final and the 2016 Rio Olympics. And, depending upon results in both Semi-Final events – Valencia and Antwerp – the fourth-placed teams may also have a strong chance of qualifying for one or both of these prestigious events.

Pool A contains some teams that know each other very well through recent competitions. With a FIH world ranking of three, Argentina is the top-seed in Valencia, and the team that has dominated the world hockey stage for more than a decade will be hoping to make its mark in Valencia.

Winners of five of the past six Champions Trophies; silver medallists in London 2012 and bronze medallists at the 2014 World Cup, Las Leones will be seeking to continue their role as one of the powerhouses of international hockey. Elder stateswomen of the side Delfina Merino, Carla Rebecchi and drag-flicking defender Noel Barrionuevo will be certain to dominate the stage, while young players such as FIH Rising Star 2014, Florencia Habif will be hoping to step into the shoes of recently-retired superstar Luciana Aymar as the new face of Las Leonas.

China come into the tournament with a world ranking of seven and a few points to prove. The team will have been disappointed to not already have sealed its place at Rio 2016, losing out in the Asian Games to Korea.

The past few years has been a time of transition for the Chinese team, following its silver medal win at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. While Xu Xiaoxu and Ma Wei bring experience to the side, most of the team is under 23, but the signs are there that the China team is beginning to gel and results must start to follow. Wang Mengyu is one of the new generation of China players who can lift this team from mid-table finishes to contesting the podium places – she is a solid defender who also has an eye for the goal at penalty corners.

If China is out to prove a point, so is the team lying one ranking point behind them. Eighth in the world is not where Great Britain want to be, and this event will see the team, led by Kate Richardson-Walsh, move towards qualifying for the Olympics and the HWL Final, as well as climbing back up the rankings.

Richardson-Walsh is joined by her wife and fellow veteran of the team Helen Richardson-Walsh – who is back from a long-term injury – and with players such as the mercurial Alex Danson, midfield Dynamo Georgie Twigg and rising star Lily Owsley all on sharp form, Great Britain will want to make their mark on this tournament.

The fourth team in Pool A is host nation and 15th-ranked team Spain. The team’s glory days were in the 1990s when it brought home gold in the Barcelona Olympics. Even rival coaches are saying that Spain is currently performing well above its ranking, and the team is seen as a big threat in Valencia.

The Redsticks are currently coached by Adrian Lock, and while the Englishman says he is targeting Tokyo 2020 with this young team, there is enough talent in the squad for a trip to Argentina for the Hockey World League Final in December and a place at Rio 2016 to be very much on the cards.

Key players for the team will be midfielder Georgina Oliva and team captain Rocio Ybarra.

Canada makes up the Pool A quintet, but anyone who thinks the team ranked 20 in the world is here to make up the numbers, must think again. The team qualified via the Hockey World League Round Two event, disposing of higher-ranked teams on the way.

The North Americans finished second to Ireland, just losing out in the shoot-out, but the experience and confidence gained during that event will have lifted the Canada team’s expectations. Thea Culley, the 29-year-old striker and goalkeeper Kaitlyn Williams will be two players who could make a big impact upon this tournament, and even upset the world order.

The opening matches in Pool A on Wednesday 10 June, see China take on Canada and Great Britain face Spain, while Argentina opens its account against Canada on Thursday 11 June.

Pool B is packed full of exciting teams, all craving a chance to get onto the biggest stage of all. Highest ranked team in Pool B is the fifth-ranked USA. This is a team that is on a definite upward trajectory. A fourth place finish at the 2014 World Cup, followed hot on the heels of a triumphant Champions Challenge in Glasgow.

There was a dip in form at the recent Hawkes Bay tournament in New Zealand, where they finished fifth of eight teams but, significantly, the team recorded a victory over fellow Pan-American side Argentina and will take confidence from a 3-0 test series against Pool B rivals Ireland.

Captain Lauren Crandall continues to impress both as a player who can steady the ship with her defensive strength and as a leader who inspires a phenomenal team work ethic.

Ranked one point lower are the reigning European Champions, Germany. The current squad is young and under going a building process, with their coach Jamilon Mulders insisting they are preparing for the long-term, and will be happy with third or fourth place in Valencia.

But, as every other team is aware, when it comes to important competitions, Germany usually delivers. However, Die Danas will be without influential captain Julia Muller, Katharina Otte, Lisa Schutze and Pia-Sophie Oldhafer – all of who have been forced to withdraw through injury. And a recent 3-0 loss to Spain will also have rocked the team’s confidence.

The leadership team that includes Julia Muller-Weiland, Francisca Hauke and Hannah Kruger will need to be at their motivational best to ensure Germany plays to its potential.

South Africa, who come to Valencia ranked 11th, are the unbeaten African Continental Champions, but the team will want to qualify via this tournament, particularly as a place at the Hockey World League Final will give them extra top level international competition in the build-up to Rio 2016.

The team has a huge amount of experience among its ranks. In Nicolene Terblanche, Illse Davids, Shelley Russell and Dirkie Chamberlain, South Africa has players with World Cup and Olympic experience, as well as a huge amount of exciting talent.

The team will however be without its most capped player, Marsha Cox, who misses out on this event as she is currently unavailable for selection.

Ireland come to Valencia with high confidence levels after winning the HWL Round Two tournament in Dublin. While coach Darren Smith has announced his intention to step down as coach to the Green Army after Valencia, the team has a successor in place – assistant coach Graham Shaw – and will be hoping to give Smith a fitting send-off by achieving an Olympic qualification spot.

The team ranked 14 has a number of talented players in its ranks, and captain Megan Frazer will be leading by her usual energetic example. At 29, Uruguay is the lowest ranked team in Valencia but should not be under-estimated. The team defeated four teams ranked higher in the HWL Round Two event in Montevideo earlier this year, and in Florencia Norbis, Sofia Mora and Constanza Barrandeguy, it has three excellent goal-scorers.

Despite having no Olympic or World Cup tradition, Uruguay are the epitome of a nation that is taking full advantage of the opportunity offered by the new qualification process.

Pool B action begins with the first match of the competition here in Valencia. South Africa take on Ireland, with Germany facing Uruguay. On the second day of action, Uruguay face Pan-American rivals USA.

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Source material: FIH.CH

Photograph: GB fans will be hoping for a good start from GB (Frank Uijlenbroek (c)