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His team head to Glasgow as overwhelming gold medal favourites, but Kookaburras skipper Mark Knowles still faces a significant challenge after a major upheaval in the national team.
Little over a month has passed since the Kookaburras successfully defended their World Cup crown in The Netherlands, but much has changed.
Immediately after the tournament legendary coach Ric Charlesworth, who during a five-year stint led the team to four Champions Trophy wins, two World Cup wins, a 2010 Commonwealth Games gold medal and a 2012 Olympic Games bronze medal, announced his retirement.
Before he left, however, Charlesworth’s final act was to punt 321-cap veteran Jamie Dwyer from the Commonwealth Games team via an email to the 35-year-old.
It was a decision that drew widespread criticism from within the hockey community and for Knowles, who is married to Dwyer’s younger sister, the omission of the five-time world player of the year came as a shock.
“Jamie, you know, has been one of the greatest players ever in hockey, not just in Australia, so for him not to be in one of these teams for the first time is something different for all of us,” he said.
Dwyer wasn’t the only one to be left out.
Fellow veterans Liam de Young and Glenn Turner were also cut while Rob Hammond retired, meaning the Kookaburras lost over 1000 games’ worth of experience.
Clearly, after their bronze-medal finish at the London Olympic two years ago, the Kookaburras are looking to blood youth as they look to reclaim gold at Rio in 2016, with nine of the 16-man squad making their Commonwealth Games debut.
For Knowles, who was appointed sole captain in January after previously being a co-captain in a rotational system, there is pressure to ensure that the Kookaburras’ long-term view doesn’t cost them gold in Glasgow.
But in a ten-year international career that began with a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics, leadership has always come naturally to the man who took up the sport as a four-year-old.
And this is a man who knows all too well what a winning culture demands.
He’s been a two-time Commonwealth Games gold medallist, an Olympic gold medallist in 2004, a three-time World Cup winner and a four-time Champions Trophy winner.
The responsibility of leading the team was something that Charlesworth had no doubt Knowles was capable of when appointing him back in January.
“He (Knowles) sets a tone at training and in the game for professionalism and the way in which he prepares himself, presents himself; the way in which he contributes, and that is recognised as a good example,” Charlesworth said.
“My concern is that while there’s responsibility there he still has to deliver on the field and in the end that’s required of everybody.
“He has the stature, he has the status and he has the quality in his play to be able to handle that.”
At Knowles’ side will be fellow veterans Simon Orchard, Chris Ciriello and Eddie Ockenden, while Charlesworth’s long-time assistants Graham Reid and Paul Gourdoin will guide from the sideline and have long been involved in the setup.
This experience alone should be enough to guide the Kookaburras to a fifth Commonwealth Games gold medal, but the recent exits of Dwyer and co. have created uncertainty.
As captain, the responsibility will be squarely on the shoulders of Knowles, in his third Commonwealth Games, to ensure the side’s winning tradition continues.
Form heading into the Games
Since being sidelined for two months with an ankle injury last October, Knowles looks to have returned to the form that saw him selected in the FIH World All-Stars team in 2007 and 2009.
In January he skippered the Kookaburras to a fourth-place finish in the World Hockey League, beating Commonwealth rivals India 7-2 in the quarter-finals before a 4-3 loss to The Netherlands in the semi.
Knowles then backed up in February for the lucrative, month-long Hockey India League, where his Jaypee Punja Warriors side finished the season first before losing 3-1 to Delhi Wave Riders in the competition decider.
Knowles and the Kookaburras were then utterly dominant at the World Cup in May and June, winning all seven games en route to the trophy.
Against Commonwealth rivals India and England in the pool stage they won 4-0 and 5-0 respectively, and their 6-1 win over The Netherlands in the final saw them finish having scored 30 goals and conceded just three.
Knowles’ excellent contribution was recognised by him being crowned player of the tournament.
Having won all four Commonwealth Games gold medals since hockey was introduced at Kuala Lumpur in 1998, the Kookaburras will go into Glasgow as short-priced favourites.
They should have no problem progressing into the semi-finals out of Pool A, with traditional powerhouses India the only real threat in a group that includes Scotland, Wales and South Africa.
In Pool B England, 2010 Delhi semi-finalists New Zealand and Malaysia appear the only realistic chances to meet Australia in the last four.
World number four England were crushed 5-0 by the Kookaburras at the recent World Cup but did record a 2-1 win over the Australians in a World Hockey League match back in January.
And, according to forward Simon Mantell, the recent turbulence in the Australian team has the English sensing weakness.
“I think most teams were surprised at how comfortable the World Cup was for them, no-one expected that,” he said.
“It was just too easy for them. But they have a couple of big names not selected and that gives us and the other teams a big opportunity to try and upset them.
“With Charlesworth going there is a little bit of transition there and that could be a bit of a stumbling block for them.”
Why should Aussies get behind me?
It won’t require much convincing to back the Kookaburras in Glasgow.
The Australian sporting public love a winner and the Australian men’s team are virtually the definition of that at the Commonwealth Games, winning all four gold medals that have been contested in the sport’s history.
The omission of Dwyer and others won’t have gone down well among Australia’s diehard hockey fans, but high-profile exits are hardly ever palatable.
But the current, youthful crop are there for a reason, and they deserve the public’s support as they look to again claim gold and build toward the 2016 Olympics.
Name: Mark Knowles
Debut: 2004 Olympic Games
Team Honours: 2004 Olympic gold medal, 2008 Olympic bronze medal, 2012 Olympic bronze medal, 2006 Commonwealth Games gold medal, 2010 Commonwealth Games gold medal, Champions Trophy winner 2005, 2008, 2009, 2012, World Cup winner 2010, 2014
Individual Honours: 2007 World Young Player of the Year, FIH World All-Stars 2007, 2009, 2014 World Cup Player of the Tournament
Twitter followers: 2,500
Favourite food: Fresh prawns
Favourite music: The Killers
– Knowles is married to former Kookaburra Jamie Dwyer’s younger sister Kelly, who also hails from Rockhampton.
– He was the youngest member of the team that won Australia’s only men’s Olympic hockey gold medal at Athens in 2004.
– Knowles and brother-in-law Dwyer started up their own coaching academy, 1&9 Coaching, in 2008.
– Both of Knowles’ parents, Ryan and Barbara, were avid hockey players.
– Knowles is an avid football fan and supports Manchester United, with Ryan Giggs being his favourite player.
– Knowles is passionate about coffee, with his drink of choice being the long macchiato, and he has said he may look to get into the hospitality business following his playing career.
This article was first published on the Tenplay website here.