More than just medals at stake

HOCKEY: England's women may begin their bid for glory against New Zealand on Friday but they have another aim for the Games – to re-ignite interest in the sport.

England's women may begin their bid for glory against New Zealand on Friday but they have another aim for the Games – to re-ignite interest in the sport.

Coverage of hockey is usually restricted to a four-yearly trip to the Olympics but having the Commonwealths on home soil means England – both women and men – have a superb opportunity to raise awareness of hockey.

It is unlikely they will be able to generate the kind of unprecedented following which was sparked by the men's gold medal in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul but the players have the chance to make a name for themselves – a fact of which they are well aware.

"Hockey does not get much coverage and hopefully we can take as much glory as we can," said Slough forward and England's co-captain Jane Smith, who was a member of the side who lost to Australia in the final at the Commonwealths in Malaysia in 1998 and also part of the Sydney Olympics squad.

"I don't think it is an added pressure for us. It is a nice pressure," said the 33-year-old Smith, a veteran of 200 international caps and a former Ipswich player.

The sport is in need of a shot in the arm as it has gone through some turmoil this year with the English Hockey Association being phased out after accruing debts in excess of £700,000, replaced by a new company, Hockey England Ltd.

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Women's team manager Chris Pickett said: "We are obviously concerned about the well-being of our sport but, as an England team, we have to put that on the back-burner.

"If hockey as a whole is successful it will be a great showpiece for the sport."

However, chances of cashing in with the media ahead of the Games suffered a blow when arguably hockey's most marketable asset, Denise Marston-Smith – the Bristol-based Clifton midfielder and part-time model – was dropped from the squad just weeks before the Games.

Attention has therefore turned to other players in the squad, notably 22-year-old Kate Walsh – born in Manchester – who is looking forward to seeing the games played in her home city.

The Slough defender has been helping to promote the Games by visiting schools and has been featured on a huge billboard poster by the A6 in Stockport.

"My gran was standing underneath it telling everyone that it was her granddaughter," joked Walsh.

"This is a good chance for us to publicise the sport as people will be tuning in for the Commonwealth Games and they will see hockey, and if we perform well more people will get involved in the sport.

"Women's sport in general does not get a lot of coverage and the Games will be a good chance for them to promote themselves."

Born in Withington, Walsh left her home city two years ago to begin a sports science course at Brunel University, switched clubs from Hightown (in Formby, near Liverpool) to Slough and subsequently won the Premiership play-offs and then the Premier Division in successive seasons.

But success domestically pales into insignificance compared to the Games coming to Walsh's backyard. "It is really exciting, especially as it is my first Commonwealth Games - which is a big thing," she said.

"It is a dream come true. I can't think of anything better than hosting the Commonwealth Games in your home town. It is unbelievable really."

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