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A strange thing happened recently in the world of women's hockey: for the first time since 1992, the Australian team left a big tournament without a gold medal. Some players felt embarrassed; one or two wept as their bus pulled into the stadium for the bronze-medal play-off. The Hockeyroos won, but it hardly mattered. Their armor had been pierced.

That was at the Champions Trophy in Amsterdam in June. But don't read too much into it. No one doubts the Hockeyroos' greatness. In sport, it is only great teams that win in all conditions, and in seven years the Hockeyroos have prevailed everywhere-from Brisbane to Dublin to Berlin to Mar Del Plata-thriving on superior skill, resilience and self-confidence.

It is only great teams, too, that can change the way their sport is played. Since Ric Charlesworth became coach in 1993, the Hockeyroos have practiced relentless attack, characterized by rapid-fire passing between quick-witted, athletic players. How athletic? A former Hockeyroo, Nova Peris-Kneebone, switched to sprinting a few years ago and won the 200 m at the 1998 Commonwealth Games. As a Hockeyroo, she'd been only the fifth or sixth fastest in the squad over short distances. Team physiologist Steve Lawrence says many of the girls carry no more body fat than Olympic middle-distance runners-in a few cases, no more than Olympic gymnasts. "In 10 years, I've never seen them beaten physically," Lawrence says. "As hockey athletes, they are unmatched." And they're fitter, he says, than they were in 1996, when they put together their longest winning streak, of 41 matches.

Rivals have had little choice but to imitate them, and abandon the methodical approach (once prevalent in Europe) that the Australians routinely cut to pieces. Compared to what was on display in 1992 in Barcelona, women's hockey in Sydney will be faster, more instinctive and more intense.

Forward Alyson Annan, who's scored more than 150 Test goals, is widely regarded as the best player in the world, but such accolades rile the idiosyncratic Charlesworth, who hates any mention of "stars." His mission has been to create a team without a hierarchy, without cliques or ego. To this end the Hockeyroos have no captain and no "first XI." All players are expected to show leadership and all spend equal time on the bench, a policy that's almost certainly caused some of the team's rare defeats-all for the greater good, Charlesworth argues. While sports fans are preoccupied, he says, with "individuals and flamboyance and special, bizarre things," his obsession is teamwork. He often wishes the media would disappear, because their hype plants dangerous thoughts in the players' minds. But the girls believe their achievements have been underplayed by a sexist media, and they carry their anger onto the field. "I don't care what anyone says," says veteran defender Jenny Morris. "No team in history can match our record."

In Australian hockey, no one plays for money or glory; there isn't much of either on offer. This is a close, harmonious group playing for the love of it. Though they sometimes are infuriated by Charlesworth's moodiness and perfectionism, none doubts that his principles have underpinned the team's reign. Yet the Hockeyroos are sent onto the field with the goal not of winning but of playing well-"with passion, fire, tone and energy," Charlesworth says. He can be cutting when dissatisfied, and at such times his assistant Frank Murray is an important foil. Jenny Morris says the difference between the two was brought home to her when she needed knee surgery: Murray sent flowers; Charlesworth insisted on watching the operation.

Despite their mid-year slump, which included losses to four nations in six weeks, the Australians are favorites for Sydney, where the biggest threat will be the Netherlands, new holders of the Champions Trophy. With several veterans expected to retire after the Games, and Charlesworth too moving on, the Hockeyroos are hoping to close an era in style.