One of the major reasons for Ranchi Rhinos winning the inaugural edition of the Hockey India League last season was their impeccable home form. They made the Astroturf Stadium their fortress, losing just two matches in the entire campaign and then asserted their supremacy on home turf in the semifinal and final.
Naturally, they felt confident going into their season two opener at home despite the absence of their influential skipper Moritz Fuerste. However, to the disappointment of a packed crowd, the Gregg Clark-coached side began its title defence with a shock 3-2 loss to Uttar Pradesh Wizards on Sunday.
It was always going to be interesting to see how the Rhinos would react to the attention they received going into this tie. And they began well. Mandeep Singh, who had scored 10 goals in the inaugural HIL, carried on his fine form from last season, putting his team ahead with an opportunistic strike in the fourth minute. However, his strike was cancelled out by striker Nikkin Thimmaiah in the ninth minute.
Manpreet Singh wore the captain’s armband in absence of Fuerste, who will miss the initial part of the HIL owing to his involvement with Germany in the European Indoor Championships. And the absence was clearly felt by the Rhinos especially in the midfield and deep defence. Without Fuerste to help him, Ashley Jackson looked overburdened with the responsibility to set-up the strikers.
Rhinos, nevertheless, looked a more dangerous outfit with Jackson and Barry Middleton combining well. And they were rewarded for their constant pressure in the 47th minute after Justin Reid-Ross put them ahead for the second time in the match via a smartly-executed penalty corner. Once again, though, their joy was short-lived as VR Raghunath equalized for Wizards three minutes later, once again from a corner.
Just when it seemed that the two teams will settle for a point each, Pradeep Mor’s stunning goal from the edge of the ‘D’ gave Wizards the lead against the run of play in the 63rd minute. Rhinos upped the ante and made constant inroads into the Wizards D’ in search of an equaliser but were denied on more than one occasion by goalkeeper Kumar Subramaniam, who was named man-of-the-match.