Ekaterinburg, Russia, May 15, 2018 - Netherlands are off and running in the inaugural women's FIVB Volleyball Nations League after a Celeste Plak-inspired straight-sets victory over Thailand 3-0 (25-20, 26-24, 25-13).
The Netherlands - ranked 8th in the world rankings - were hot favourites to get their Pool One campaign off to a good start against a Thailand side who are 8 places below them in the standings. And they didn't disappoint in Ekaterinburg, around 780 kilometres east of the capital Moscow, with Plak's aerial dominance proving decisive.
Anne Buijs and Plak were the attacking orchestrators for a powerful and experienced Dutch side, while the likes of Nicole Koolhaus, Yvon Belien and libero Kirsten Knip provided the defensive resilience with some superb blocking to keep a lively Thailand side at arm's length.
Thailand were far from overawed and had some impressive performers, with Ajcharaporn Kongyot and Chatshu-on Moksri their most prominent attacking threats throughout - although they were ultimately outclassed.
The first set was nip and tuck early on with both teams sussing each other out, but the Dutch worked their way into a 9-7 lead, and the Thais were never able to bridge the gap. Back-to-back spikes from Buijs put the Netherlands 16-12 in front and they were able to hold off a mini Thailand revival to close out the set thanks to another superb block from the imposing figure of Plak (25-20).
Into set two and underdogs Thailand started superbly with Kongyot and Moksri on song, but the Dutch slowly began to take control. With Thailand 8-7 up in the second, Jamie Morrison's Dutch side struck 4 successive points to take control of the set. Buijs kept the Thais at bay with some superb spikes, but Moksri's block on Plak brought Thailand back to within one before Pleumjit Thinkaow's thunderous effort hauled them level at 20-20 - with Morrison calling a timeout to calm some flapping Dutch heads. But it didn't work as Thailand incredibly took 4 straight points to level at 24-24 and seize the momentum. But the Netherlands wrestled control back with a huge spike from Plak giving them another set point, before a brilliant Belien block from Onuma Sittirak's attempted spike finally giving the Dutch a two-set lead (26-24).
Thailand, who hadn't beaten the Dutch for 8 years, seemed to be affected by their failure to win that tight second set and it was the Netherlands who ran away with things in the third. Plak, who was playing in her 189th international match, thumped down a spike for 3-2 before the Thais levelled. But an incredible run of Dutch points - including Laura Dijkamer's gorgeous dummy - moved the favourites 11-3 ahead; with Plak winning 8 straight serves to put the game out of Thailand's reach. Further Plak spikes ensured Morrison's side sustained their big lead, and a Britt Bongaerts ace stretched the advantage to 11 points. Nicole Oude Luttikhuis' delicate hands at the net wrapped up the set and the match as the Netherlands - who beat Russia 3-2 in the 2016 World Grand Prix to finish third - rounded out a comfortable win in their opening game. Tougher tests await against Russia and Argentina in Pool One, but this was an impressive start by a slick Dutch side.