Tokyo 2020: Savita Punia and Rani Rampal recount their brilliant spell
The wait was agonising. India skipper Rani Rampal’s gaze was nervously fixed on the scoreboard. Australia had sought a video referral for a penalty corner in the dying moments of the game. Goalkeeper Savita Punia came behind the post and took a sip of water. Until then, the seniormost player had shown great anticipation and skill to stop Australia in penalty corners, to defend a 1-0 lead for 55 minutes. The wait was never ending for the Indian camp as officials checked and re-checked the video.
Australia got the penalty corner, in fact two in a row. But Punia was the wall that ensured Australia did not deny India the victory. She stretched and kept the ball away to keep Indian hopes intact. As the team marched into the semi-finals of an Olympics for the first time on Monday, Punia and Rampal hugged and walked arm-in-arm. Together they had endured the heartbreak of the Rio Olympics, where India finished 12th.
“It is a very big moment for me,” said an exhausted but relieved Punia. “I was a bit disappointed with the last match (India beat South Africa 4-3 after their rivals equalised thrice). We decided, like we did against Ireland, that even if we have just a one goal lead, as a senior goalkeeper I just have to stay calm at the back and not panic. That is what I did today to stay as calm as possible.”
There was one great save by Punia towards the end before a defender took the ball away, out of the circle and to safety. India’s tight defensive formation took the sting out of Australia’s attacks.
Punia’s counterpart in the men’s team PR Sreejesh would agree to her talking about staying calm, he too having put in crucial saves match after match to help India reach their first semi-finals for 49 years.
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For the women, eight members from the Rio Olympics squad are part of the Tokyo campaign. For them, victory over Australia and reaching the semi-final is a huge vindication.
“When we finished 12th in Rio, it was a very upsetting period for us,” recalled skipper Rampal. “We didn’t even want to tell anyone that we went to the Olympics. So you can imagine how bad the feeling was. In Tokyo we came with a different mindset. We told ourselves that Rio was our first Olympics and here we can accomplish something. The coaches made us believe we could do it.”
After the Rio debacle, having qualified for their first Olympics, India won the 2016 Asian Champions Trophy, 2017 Asia Cup, and silver at the 2018 Asian Games. A quarterfinal finish at the 2018 World Cup added to their confidence in the build-up to Tokyo.
Like Sreejesh in the men's team, Punia, 31, is the senior most in the women’s team and key to the team’s success here. Her first big moment was winning bronze at the 2014 Incheon Asian Games. At the FIH Hockey World League in Belgium in 2015, she emerged a quality goal-keeper with saves against Japan that saw India qualify for the Rio Olympics.
In any other context, a win over three-time champions Australia would have been unthinkable. But self-belief runs through this squad. The defensive steel was tested in the win over South Africa that sent them into the quarters.
“It is not a surprise for us (show against Australia) because we deserved it. Everyone worked really hard. We had the belief we could do it. We worked as a team and that was reflected in the match. They were 60 minutes of do-or-die, we had no option but to do it successfully,” said Punia.
Things had not started the way India would have hoped for. They had lost the first three matches, to Netherlands (1-5), Germany (0-2) and Great Britain (1-4). Their hope was flickering.
“Olympics is not just a tournament, it is big. Our first three matches did not go well, but we believed we would come back,” said Punia.
“We played well in the first half against Netherlands and that gave us a lot of confidence that we can do better than other teams. After the match against Great Britain everyone was crying because we did not follow the plan. We were not upset so much with the result but that we did not execute,” said Rani Rampal.
When they finally made it through to the quarter-final, the team was keen to play Australia. “We were hoping to meet Australia because we have played a lot of matches against them. We know we can play our game against Australia. They give us the space and today we took full advantage of that. As a team we gelled for the whole 60 minutes.
“We helped each other. If the ball went loose, it didn’t matter, we tackled again. We were ready to tackle again and again. That is the kind of effort we put and we got the result,” Rampal said.
In the last quarter, it boiled down to who handled pressure better and Australia wilted as the match drew towards a close.
“The way Australia had pressure that they had to score, we had pressure to stay calm. We knew we could not rush, we were not to take any card or give them any PC. If we stay calm, then the game will go fine but if we were impulsive, there will be mistakes and we could give the advantage to Australia,” said Punia.
Even when they defeated South Africa, the performance was not good. Coach Sjoerd Marijne had spoken about the team holding on to the ball for a long time and not making the right decisions. They scraped past South Africa 4-3 in the last pool match, in a must-win game where the opposition came back thrice.
“After we got the goal in the first quarter we were like “we are not going to play defensive hockey and we have to go for the second goal”. Defensively we have to play in a pack to not give them a chance. We played attacking hockey in the second and third quarters. They got a lot of PCs but we handled it very well,” she said.
What was also key to the victory was Gurjit Kaur’s drag flick.
“My finish was very good,” said Gurjit. “Our strategy was to put in as much effort as we could that by the end of the match we should have nothing left in us,” said Gurjit, who is a product of the famous Shahbad Hockey Academy where Rampal also learnt the game.