Belfius EuroHockey Championships
Men’s Pool A
England 2 (S Ward, J Gall) Wales 2 (G Furlong, R Furlong)
Wales almost caused a massive shock in their first appearance in the top tier of European competition for 20 years as they drew 2-2 with England in their opening game in Antwerp.
Indeed, it might have been even better for the Welsh men as they fought back from a 1-0 half-time deficit to lead 2-1 courtesy of goals from Gareth and Rhodri Furlong only for James Gall to snatch a late equaliser.
The Dragons started off with real intent with Rupert Shipperley’s skills causing damage down the left channel, winning an early penalty corner which Ward did well to save off the line.
England weathered that early storm and, after 10 minutes, began to make inroads themselves. Ward hit the side-netting with one effort when maybe a pull-back to a team mate could have yielded a better chance. Phil Roper’s excellent catch of a bouncing ball then almost saw him slip home but James Fortnam saved well.
The English, though, kept coming and began to run up a heavy corner count. Some of them were messy at the top but when they did get one stopped in the pocket, Ward whipped home a powerful low push down the middle that deceived Ieuan Tranter for a 26th minute lead.
Wales fought back in the third quarter, however, and won a corner on the break and got back level at 1-1 in the 32nd minute via Gareth Furlong’s corner push into the bottom right of the backboard.
They survived a Jonathan Gooch yellow card soon after to keep the tie even going into the final quarter. And they had a chance to go in front from another set piece early in the fourth quarter but the disguised-move did not go to plan.
But they got a massive stroke of luck with weight minutes later when the impressive Jacob Draper whipped across a ball from the left wing. Rhodri Furlong got a touch to it but it was going well off course until Henry Weir unfortunately slipped and his boot took the ball under George Pinner and into the goal for 2-1.
England threw everything into the final few minutes – swapping out their goalkeeper for an extra outfielder – and they got their reward three minutes from the end, a switched PC to the right post where James Gall slid in for the vital touch.
And they kept their goalkeeper off going in search of a winner but saw a corner chance charged down and a Jackson pass skip across the face of goal in the closing seconds to settle for a draw.
Despite the late concession, Draper said this was a strong point for Wales: “We knew with the quality England have, they would really punish us. We were really up for it, played the game we wanted to play and, by the end, the luck came our way to get the lead. Maybe that’s a development for us, to try and hold that lead when they went to a kicking back so if that scenario ever happens again, we can deal with that.
“But it is a really good point gained ahead of the game against Spain. Definitely, we wanted something on the board.”
For Wales, it is part of an amazing journey from the C division to the top level within four years and Draper says this is a new level for him.
“This is probably one of the biggest, if not the biggest, game of my career. It’s taken a lot of hard work from the boys to go up through the divisions. I was really nervous coming out for the game but when we got the ball rolling, we went well.”
For England captain Adam Dixon, he felt his side did well to stay calm in a tricky situation.
“Given the last 10 minutes, we had a mountain to climb,” he said. “The way we approached it mentally, we stayed level-headed and what it required in those moments. It’s often having that clear mind to know where the next pass is, the next pass, to getting corners and shots. It was good to see but unfortunate we couldn’t get another one.
“We always know those games will be very tough. It’s testament to where British hockey is at the moment – it’s great to see from a GB perspective and to see us all competing at this level
“For England, we knew it was going to be tight. The challenge for us was to play moment by moment and not get drawn into the emotions of a game like this. These rivalries and derbies can often boil over but we kept our heads and didn’t concede too many cards while they got a few.
England have Belgium next and then Spain in pursuit of their semi-final shot, all teams who know each other well.
Dixon added: “We have played them a lot in the last six months. The Pro League has given us lots of practice so we will know exactly what to expect. Belgium will be tail’s up in front of their home crowd so we need to rise to that but not get carried away to put in a performance we can be proud of.”
Umpires: S Duterme (BEL), A Ortiz (ESP)
England – Wales
26’ Sam Ward (PC) 1-0
32’ Gareth Furlong (PC) 1-1
52’ Rhodri Furlong (FG) 1-2
57’ James Gall (PC) 2-2