Australia recovers from shaky start to beat Hong Kong
After two days of staggering through ill health and injury, the Australian women’s volleyball team celebrated the return of several of their best players with a four-set win over Hong Kong at the Asian Championships in China on Sunday.
The win keeps Australia in the running to finish ninth, equal to their performance of two years ago, but this time with a much younger and more inexperienced squad.
Following Saturday’s five-set win over Sri Lanka, the Volleyroos were down to just six fit players, with the rest of the team confined to bed through illness.
But the return of experienced pair Lauren Bertolacci and Bec Walter, and young gun Phoebe Bell, gave the team enough fresh legs to see off Hong Kong 25-17, 27-25, 15-25, 25-17.
Coach Mark Barnard says he’s been impressed with the fight his team has shown all week.
“We were a pretty inexperienced team, without the fact the players are sick as well,” he said.
“It’s been great that everyone has got to play a lot of volleyball, but to get any team cohesion, which we really hoped we’d get in Asians, that’s been difficult because we’ve just never had the same team.”
At 4-13 down in the opening set it looked like Hong Kong was going to make light work of the battle-weary Volleyroos.
But an incredible run of serving by Queensland’s Rhiannon Tooker, taking the score to 16-13 in Australia’s favour, gave the Volleyroos the lift they needed.
They next play Mongolia on Tuesday, with ninth place the best Australia can hope for.
Barnard believes that would be a good result.
“I think realistically, eighth to 10th is probably a fair reflection of where the team is at,” he said.
“It would have been great to get top eight, but if we had we probably would have finished eighth.
“Two years ago they finished ninth with a much more experienced team, so that’s probably a positive.
“There are some good young players. I’m impressed with some of the players I only met at camps this year. They have great potential.”
Barnard will give his players the day off on Monday. He probably didn’t have much choice, given most of them are still not 100 per cent, and the ones that are have been carrying the team all week.
“It couldn’t have come at a better time to have the rest day,” Barnard said.
“We’ve still got a couple of players who couldn’t get out of bed today, so we need a day to rest up and regroup.”
Australia defies the odds at Asian Championships
In years to come the record books are unlikely to dwell for too long on Australia’s 3-2 win over Sri Lanka at the 2015 Women’s Asian World Championships in China.
But those who were there, or following point-by-point from afar, will attest to their dying day about the courage of a handful of Volleyroos players who refused to accept the enormous odds stacked against them.
Such is the ferocity of the bug sweeping through the Australian women’s volleyball team that coach Mark Barnard may struggle to even have enough healthy players to form a starting line-up on Sunday.
At the start of Saturday’s match against Sri Lanka, Australia had just eight players healthy enough to take the court.
By the end of the match they were down to six. By Sunday morning, who knows?
One of those still healthy, as of Saturday night, was 24-year-old Hannah Martin.
She said despite starting the game against Sri Lanka with only two subs, she had confidence the Volleyroos could win.
“I felt fine,” Martin said.
“I knew we would have to dig deep mentally to stick it out, but I had faith in the team we had on the court.
“Obviously it sucks to have limited options when it comes to subbing, but I knew we still had a really good chance to win.”
And for the first two sets that confidence seemed well placed. A good game is a quick game, especially when you have a limited bench, so when Australia raced to a 25-22, 25-19 lead it was looking like a very good game.
But then fatigue started to kick in.
“We definitely were getting tired and lacking energy,” Martin said.
“We tried to calm each other down on the court and play point-by-point. We knew there was no other option, we just had to keep going.”
Sri Lanka took the next two sets 25-19, 25-16. Any honest judge would have given the beleaguered Australians any chance of fighting back in the fifth, especially given their meek performance in the fourth.
But the players rallied.
“That fifth set, I don’t think any of us would even think of giving up after coming that far,” Martin said. “
“We just kept going – I think by that point in the game it was adrenalin. We just had to give it our all, even though we were all so tired.
“Mentally as well, it was pretty exhausting.”
The fifth set was a titanic affair, point-for-point. Australia held match point, then gave it away. They held another, then another, and so it continued, until finally, at 21-20, the Volleyroos were able to finally snare the point that put to bed the plucky Sri Lankans, 25-22, 25-19, 19-25, 16-25, 22-20.
“I was exhausted, but I was ecstatic,” Martin said.
“This team has a lot of character and no fear. This was such a good win for our confidence.”
Two of the stars of the night, Beth Carey and Georgie Rowe, could barely drag themselves from the court, as a combination of fatigue, and the illness which has already claimed so many of their teammates, kicked in.
Coach Barnard will be staring anxiously at the door to the breakfast room on Sunday morning. His team plays Hong Kong on Sunday afternoon, a match in which, on paper, the Australians should win comfortably.
But comfortable is not a word that fits easily with most of the Volleyroos at the moment,
Illness, injury spoil Australia's big moment
It was meant to be the defining match for the Australian women’s volleyball team, the moment when they would prove they can hold their own against the best in their region.
But as the team prepared to take on Asian fifth seeds, Kazakhstan, with a place in the top eight of the Asian Volleyball Championships at stake, the fickle finger of fate intervened.
Two of the Volleyroos most important players, Libero Bec Walter and Opposite Phoebe Bell, succumbed to illness (although Walter somehow managed to get on the court).
And then a third player, Hannah Ross, was injured during the match, further cruelling Australia’s hopes of snaring the biggest scalp in its playing history.
It left a Volleyroos combination playing patches of good volleyball, but lacking the depth to sustain any sort of pressure on their Central Asian opponent.
The final scoreline of 25-17, 25-14, 25-17 left Australia third in its group, and now facing a fight for places ninth to 12th in Asia.
Ninth would be a repeat of the Volleyroos result from two years ago. They take on Sri Lanka on Saturday in the next step towards a potential top ten finish.