Champions Trophy: British women 'sick of bronze medals'

By Ollie WilliamsBBC Olympic sports reporter

Ashleigh Ball admits another bronze medal would leave her British hockey team-mates exasperated as they prepare to face the world's best in Argentina.

The Champions Trophy, Britain's biggest test before London 2012, begins on Saturday and stars eight top teams such as the hosts and the Netherlands.

Most of the GB squad are drawn from an England team which has won five bronze medals in recent major tournaments.

"It would kill us, again, to get a bronze," Ball told BBC Sport.

Since finishing sixth at the 2009 Champions Trophy, England have gone on to win European bronze in 2009 and 2011, added to third-place finishes at the World Cup, Commonwealth Games and Champions Trophy in 2010. They dropped to fifth in the Champions Trophy in 2011.

Taken as a whole these results represent considerable progress since Britain failed to qualify for the Athens Olympics in 2004, but the squad's frustration at failing to break the bronze-medal barrier has been growing.

Having been joined by their Scottish and Welsh counterparts to play as Great Britain in the build-up to London 2012, the team earned silver last Monday - albeit in a Four Nations warm-up for this year's Champions Trophy, losing 3-2 to South Korea in the final.

"The end feeling there was disappointment. We didn't collect our silver medals and celebrate," said 25-year-old Slough midfielder Ball.

"We strive for gold, that's all we look for and anything below that is disappointing. We'll go into the Champions Trophy with the same mentality.

"But that silver was - on reflection - a welcome change from bronze. I think the point has come and gone where we will not take bronze.

"It's all about gold for us. We have never aimed for bronze. Maybe this time? We've been progressing for however many months and years now. I don't want to say it's luck, it's nothing to do with luck, but we can only keep performing and striving."

Britain face world number one outfit the Netherlands on Sunday, alongside games against Japan on Saturday and China on Tuesday (all live via the BBC red button), in a tough group as they look to ascend the podium in a nation famed for its obsession with women's hockey.

"Argentina is the place to come if you want big crowds. They're just so passionate, they love their hockey," said British defender Laura Unsworth, speaking from the team's Rosario hotel.

"We've never experienced anything like that elsewhere. You're in awe of the crowds. For us, going into the Olympics in London, it's something we'll have to get used to - the difference there is we'll have a home crowd supporting us."

The dawning of this Champions Trophy, third in importance behind the Olympics and World Cup, means only six months remain until radical changes to the structure of Britain's elite hockey teams are given their ultimate test at a home Games.

Following a sixth-place finish for Britain's women and fifth for the men at 2008's Beijing Olympics, a decision was taken to bring the home nations together, training each week as a full British squad at the Bisham Abbey national sports centre.

Previously, the home nations' players had always remained apart until Olympic year. Now, the squads have had several years to bond and train as Britain - despite routinely splitting up to compete as the home nations during that time - and both are considered dark horses for Olympic gold.

Competition to be among the 16 women Team GB take to the Games is fierce, with almost double that number currently training as part of the larger British squad.

The lucky 16 will not be announced until late spring, but Ball believes every performance now counts towards her selection.

"We know the extent of the competition, we know every single time we play it's about performance," she said.

"None of our positions are confirmed for London. Every time we play, it may count. If you've been given the opportunity and then you do well, it's your place to give away. But I would be very, very foolish to think right now that I'm edging my way in. There's such a long time to go.

"If you look at the players around you for too long, thinking, 'They're performing well, they're doing this or that better than I am,' you'll get totally distracted from the actual job. It doesn't matter how anyone else is doing. If you go out and perform to your best, you can only hope that's enough to catch [coach] Danny Kerry's eye."

The Champions Trophy concludes on Sunday, 5 February, after which the British team can look forward to May's Olympic test event, on the pink-and-blue "Smurf turf" of the Olympic Park, and an invitational London Cup tournament in Chiswick the following month as their final pre-Games preparation.

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