Down-to-the-wire hockey thriller

2012-05-03 00:00

A PENALTY corner won two seconds from full time and then the equaliser after the final hooter summed up the tightest, most nerve-jangling of hockey matches you are ever likely to see when South Africa drew 3-3 with Japan after the scores were locked 1-1 at half time in their top-of-the log Olympic Qualifier Tournament match at Gifu Green Stadium in Japan yesterday.

South Africa’s drag-flick king, Justin Reid-Ross, took his tournament goal tally to nine with a brace of rocket launchers that almost broke the back of the net, including the match-levelling equaliser when the fat lady’s song had just about been sung.

His success is a tribute to South Africa’s slick penalty corner team and the players who earn the set-piece opportunities.

SA were surprised a number of times by the speed of Japan’s forwards, who intercepted seemingly assured passes, while the pace of their counter-attacks had the defence stretched to the limit on more than one occasion.

“We had our opportunities and if we had been more thorough we might have got a better result,” said SA head coach Gregg Clark.

Said SA captain Austin Smith: “Japan put us under a lot of pressure; we didn’t play as well as we can, but we showed our fighting spirit.”

SA trailed three times in the match.

Captain Kei Kawakami opened the scoring 10 minutes before half-time after a goalmouth melee following a penalty corner.

Katsuyoshi Nagasawa put Japan 2-1 up from a PC variation 10 minutes after the break and Kenta Tanaka scored their third goal 17 minutes from time.

On all three occasions SA fought back to level matters.

The first two came virtually from the re-start.

Ever-present striker Lloyd Norris-Jones scrambled the ball home four minutes after Japan had opened the scoring. And just three minutes after Japan had gone 2-1 up Reid-Ross netted his first PC.

SA threw everything but the kitchen sink at Japan in the last quarter — with outstanding captain Smith’s penalty corner cannoning into the crossbar and staying out after keeper Katsuya Takase had somehow got a glove to the sling-shot rocket, and Norris-Jones’s skilful deflection fizzing past the wrong side of the post in the last 30 seconds perhaps the most poignant sign to South African fans that this was simply not meant to be.

But history will show that the South African team was not done yet.

Tomorrow China must beat Japan in the 4 pm (9 am SA time) match to go through to Sunday’s final. Japan need only draw.

SA meet Austria at 6.30 pm (11.30 am SA time) and will know after the Japan/China match what is required, but surely that is of little interest.

They cannot afford anything less than a comprehensive victory if they are to take momentum into the final, where the winner’s prize is the last remaining ticket to the London 2012 men’s hockey event.

Sunday’s matches will all be live on SuperSport 6.

LOG IN BRIEF (ALL PLAYED 4)

1 Japan 10 points (goal difference 20); 2 South Africa 10 points (GD 17); 3 China 9 points (GD 7); 4 Austria 6 points (GD -1); 5 Czech Republic 0 points (GD -12); 6 Brazil 0 points (GD -31).

SA RESULTS/FIXTURES

SA 11 Brazil 1; SA 6 Czech Republic 2; SA 5 China 2; SA 3 Japan 3; May 4: vs Austria (11.30 am SA time); May 6 (all live on SuperSport 6, final at 8 am SA time).

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