Kookaburras forced to dig deep, beat Japan

Blake Govers scores a drag-flick goal in Australia's 5-3 men's hockey win over Games hosts Japan.
Blake Govers scores a drag-flick goal in Australia's 5-3 men's hockey win over Games hosts Japan.

The Kookaburras have vowed to learn from a second-quarter stumble in their Tokyo Olympics opener after flirting with calamity before steadying to bank a 5-3 win over Japan.

World No.1 Australia's match against the hosts, ranked 15th in the world, was widely expected to be a lopsided affair.

It looked like that would transpire after housemates Tim Brand and Tom Craig found the back of the net in the first quarter, opening up a 2-0 lead for the gold-medal favourites.

But Japan, having triumphed in just one of 26 previous contests against Australia, seized control with three goals in the space of just six minutes during the second term.

Co-captain Aran Zalewski, whose tomahawk delivered an impressive go-ahead goal, led a composed response from the Kookaburras after halftime.

Australia coach Colin Batch, desperate to avoid a repeat of the lapse in Sunday night's clash with India, lamented that his charges played into Japan's "tactics a little bit and assisted their counter-attack".

"We didn't take them lightly at all, but we needed to be smarter," Batch said.

"We were not good in that second quarter, we learned a lot from it.

"Good composure in the first quarter and a very good second half.

"The first game of the tournament, things aren't quite right.

"We wanted to get off to a good start. We won the game, lessons are to be learned."

Batch's halftime address had its desired effect.

Blake Govers' drag flick tied the game up before Zalewski, one of seven players in Australia's squad with Olympic experience, put his side in front 4-3 at three-quarter time.

The Kookaburras increased their buffer early in the final term when Daniel Beale's nerve-settling tap in came after a superb Brand pass.

"They really gave us a test," Brand said.

"They (India) play a pretty similar style (to Japan).

"They counter-attack a lot, so I think we need to knuckle down our defence."

The topsy-turvy nature of Saturday's game was perhaps an early indicator of how COVID-19, and the resultant halt to so much international sport over the past 16 months, will muddy the form guide at this unique Olympics.

Australia, on a quest for redemption after crashing out at the quarter-final stage of Rio de Janeiro to miss out on an Olympic medal for the first time since 1988, successfully regained their powerhouse status after 2016.

The Kookaburras won the Commonwealth Games and Champions Trophy in 2018 then the 2019 Pro League.

But the coronavirus pandemic means Batch's side have only played some recent trans-Tasman tune-ups since the Pro League was halted in March, 2020.

Australian Associated Press