Perfect The Hockeyroos' gold makes them one of the world's winning-est teams By DANIEL WILLIAMS

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On the eve of their gold-medal match against the Australian Hockeyroos on Sept. 29, Argentina promised to play "with lions in their hearts." The image set up the final nicely: the underdogs would compensate for inferior skills with pride and a ferocious spirit. As a tactic, however, it was bound to fail.

Why? Because pride and ferocity have been hallmarks of the Hockeyroos since 1993, when they began their reign over women's hockey. That is the most remarkable thing about them: despite triumph after triumph in the big tournaments, they have never become complacent. Scratching around for a way to beat them, outclassed opponents have usually resorted to spoiling tactics.

These are precisely what the Hockeyroos encountered through their Olympic campaign. Wary of the Australians' attack, most teams stacked their defenses and relied on counterattacks to snatch goals. Spain managed a 1-1 draw, but Australia won its other six preliminary matches to enter the final with a for-and-against record of 22-4-and as clear favorites.

All of that was familiar to them; their opponent was less so. Since June, when the Netherlands won the Champions Trophy in Amsterdam-"our little mishap" is how Hockeyroos' defender Jenny Morris describes the team's only tournament loss in eight years-the Dutch team had been seen by commentators as the main threat to Australia's Olympic title. But it was Argentina, competing in women's hockey at the Olympics for the first time since 1988, who emerged from 14 days' competition as the Hockeyroos' last obstacle. After losing two of their opening four matches, Argentina hit top form in the second week, beating the Netherlands 3-1 and trouncing New Zealand 7-1, burying their pre-tournament reputation as plodders in the process.

Argentina's presence was a surprise; the feel and flow of the final were not. Australia immediately took control, stretching their opponents with pinpoint passes and greater foot speed. It took seven minutes for the challengers to encroach into their opponents' half, in which time the Hockeyroos' goalkeeper, Rachel Imison, might as well have been cooking a chop.

The goals soon came-and in each case the scorer had a tale that made the moment more poignant. Striker Alyson Annan was first, tapping in after a defensive mistake. She'd scored first in the final at Atlanta as well, but while she was walking off the ground that day, coach Ric Charlesworth had shattered her by remarking, "Not your best tournament, Alyson-imagine how good you can be in 2000." This time, Annan received a post-game hug and praise from the perfectionist Charlesworth.

Juliet Haslam scored next after a flurry of shots and blocks. Her year included nursing her boyfriend, who had surgery to remove a brain tumor, and battling a kidney infection of her own. Australia's third and final goal was blasted in by Morris, who'd made it back into the team after knee surgery and whose father has cancer. Shortly after the game, weeping and smiling at the same time, Morris delivered the news of victory to him on a mobile phone.

Minutes later, she fronted a press conference and, though she concealed it, must have been annoyed to find only a dozen reporters in attendance. More than most of her teammates, Morris believes passionately that the Hockeyroos are Australia's greatest team ever-"men's or women's, whatever the sport," she said after the win-and that they haven't received their due.

On a night of records, it would have been churlish to argue. By winning (3-1) in Sydney, the Hockeyroos became the first women's hockey team to win the gold medal at consecutive Games, and the sport's first men's or women's team to "repeat" at the Games since the Indian men's run of six consecutive triumphs ended in 1956. Also, the team's oldest player, Rechelle Hawkes, 33, joined Dawn Fraser and Andrew Hoy as the only Australian Olympians to win gold in the same event at three separate Games.

And there were firsts of a more esoteric kind. While Charlesworth observed most of his match-night habits-constantly pacing and gesticulating, greeting his own team's goals as though they were boring bits on a videotape, and continuing to refer to his statistics sheet with the match won and time almost up-he ditched routine in one way. A man who probably could find fault in the Mona Lisa, Charlesworth normally critiques his players' performance immediately after a game, even a final; this time, however, he told them only that he was proud of them.

The explanation is that Charlesworth has prepared the Hockeyroos for the last time. Due to quit hockey in December, he has little left to do except clean out his desk and outline to his successor (who will be on a hiding to nothing) the philosophies that have underpinned the team's success. He may tell the new coach about how he's controlled egos and improved performance through criticism that's bordered on humiliation; how he's scrapped the concepts of "captain" and "reserves"; how all-out attack is the only way to play; how he has helped tailor fitness programs on the Nietzschean principle that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

Charlesworth will be looking for a new challenge, as will several players who are expected to retire in the next few months. The task of maintaining the team's dominance will now fall to a new crop, which will need to recognize that skill alone does not make a champion team. The heart of the lion-the Hockeyroos' most underestimated quality-has to beat on.