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Women's Hockey ‘It’s a big step up. But once I’m on the pitch, I just play’

ESME BURGE talks to Ben Saunders after making an inspired debut alongsider her Team GB idols

IT WAS almost the perfect international debut. In fact you could argue that, as a learning opportunity, it actually was the ideal start to Esme Burge's Great Britain career.

With Britain’s game against Germany in the FIH Pro League last Friday poised at 2-2 with just under 10 minutes left, Burge, a 19-year-old University of Nottingham midfielder, dribbled the ball and, with nothing much else on, cleverly found a defender’s foot for a free hit.

Taking the hit herself quickly, she waltzed past a couple more defenders and squared to the ball to another youngster, 18-year-old Izzy Petter, who roofed the ball into the net.

As Barry Davies might have said: And where were the Germans?

But there was more drama to come. First Lena Micheel took advantage of some dreadful British defending to make it 3-3 just three minutes later.

Then heartbreak as sharpshooter Charlotte Stapenhorst poked in from close range with just 18 seconds remaining. So, THERE were the Germans!

Nevertheless it was an assured, mature performance from Burge. She made her mark playing for a team who are Olympic champions, but are going through a transitional period with only six players remaining from the side who won gold in Rio three years ago.

“It was a really great day,” she told the Star.

“Obviously, I’m gutted about the scoreline. Would’ve loved to have got the win. The team played really well.

“We’ve got a few things to tidy up on, but overall it’s been an amazing day, and I’m honoured to be making my debut alongside some of my idols.”

Idols like Laura Unsworth, Giselle Ansley and captain Hollie Pearne-Webb, all of whom have Olympic gold medals.

“I’ve really aspired to be like [Unsworth],” Burge said. “I try and take things off her and she’s been a great mentor for me. People like Hollie Pearne-Webb and Giselle Ansley, who I’ve looked up to for so long.

“Hollie Pearne-Webb actually coached me as a 12-year-old. She presented me with my shirt, so that was really special.”

And setting up the goal was another special moment for her before she put in another strong performance, albeit in another losing cause, when they went down 4-2 to Australia on Sunday.

“The goal was an amazing moment, especially to set up Izzy, who’s one of my peers and we’ve come up through the age groups together, so it was really, really special and very exciting, but it was a shame we couldn’t hold on to it,” Burge said.

And, while the atmosphere and standard may have been different to what she has been used to, Burge is confident enough in her game to know she is in the side on merit.

“I prepared myself for [the atmosphere],” she said.

“We watched the boys [play Germany on Thursday] and it was great to get a feel for it, while watching them.

“It was something I haven’t really experienced before. It was amazing, exciting, I was thrilled with the atmosphere and really enjoyed it.

“Obviously it’s a big step up. There’s higher intensity, but once I’m on the pitch I just play, and that’s how I like to see it. I try not to overthink things.

“I think ‘I’m here because of the stuff I do at the University of Nottingham and the stuff I do at the junior GB and England teams,’ so I’ve just got to keep doing the same things, because that’s why I’ve been picked.

“I am quite used to being one of the young ones in the team. I did the junior stuff quite early.

“The Junior World Cup [for England in Santiago, Chile, in 2016] was an amazing experience. I was 17 and the youngest in the team there.

“It doesn’t really bother me being young — I just play my game and I don’t change anything. I like to communicate and it’s not going to stop me playing how I like to play.”

The transition period has included having a new coach in Mark Hager, the former New Zealand coach and Australia international, who took over the GB women’s team in January.

“He’s been great,” Burge said. “He’s one of those guys who’s very straight-talking. He’s put some trust in me and given me a chance and I can only thank him for that.

“I really like his coaching style and I think he’s bringing new things to the team, so hopefully we can grow with him and keep making steps forward.

For now Burge will keep on doing what she does for Great Britain, who next face the world champion Dutch on Saturday at the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre in east London’s Olympic Park.

“I think I’ll get more used to the atmosphere. I won’t be as fazed by it, but I coped with it quite well [last week],” she said.

“My aim was just to enjoy it and do what I usually do.

“It was such a shame we couldn’t hold on after we went two goals up and Germany kept coming back. But that’s international hockey and we’ve got to be strong.”

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