The new year holds promise for South African hockey

2010-12-29 00:00

THERE is no doubt that the past year has seen a revival in the fortunes of the South African men’s and women’s hockey teams and this despite the fact that the playing fields are not level in world hockey.

With limited funds and competing with the world’s best teams that are fully funded, the world number 12 South African men and women (it is coincidence they are both ranked the same) have punched above their weight on the global stage.

And an indication of what they are up against can be seen in the funding England’s men’s and women’s teams receive well over R120 million in a five-year cycle.

The SA men and women are not even on the same planet in terms of funding, although the signs are there that the national women’s squad, at least, are attracting interest on a project or series basis.

Yet in spite of this, the SA men ended 10th in the World Cup and eight months later, with no matches in between, an impressive fifth at the Commonwealth­ Games, beating highly regarded Pakistan in the process. Indeed, in both these events the SA men were within the figurative goalpost of finishing significantly higher.

With minimum time together, the talented, exciting young SA men’s side, under head coach Gregg Clark and captain Austin Smith, who have been with the squad for some time, have been frustrated with the paucity of international competition and national­ camps.

That there is world-class in the making in just three young players who immediately come to mind — the Maritzburg College-educated Paton brothers, Wade and Taine, and Old Hiltonian Tim Drummond — is undisputed, but they need to spend time together in the green and gold for this team to take the next step up.

The SA women’s side, however, have probably caught the eye more than their male counterparts.

In his six months in charge, new head coach Giles Bonnet, who lives in Amsterdam and who has coached Belgium and China, has injected an energy and enthusiasm into the set-up that is contagious.

Partly through his worldwide contacts the Michaelhouse old boy has been able to see far more of his players at national camps than Clark has and the team’s 10th place at the World Cup should have been higher, while their fourth-place finish at the Commonwealth­ Games could well have been a silver or bronze medal instead.

And at the recent two-week camp at the University of Free State hockey centre in Bloemfontein, the SA women­ thumped world champs Argentina­ 4-0 in a tempestuous final Test that put to bed any thought that the South Americans weren’t going all out for a series whitewash.

And the indications are that Bonnet­’s players will be playing a host of Test matches in South Africa early next year. Yet for the spectator, the most obvious indicator of the progress the SA men and women have made is the plethora of goalscoring opportunities they are now creating, which signifies the mind-set, “you score three, we’ll score four”.

No longer is it a safety-first approach. The national teams now know they can beat the best. As of yet, the conversion rate of circle entries is modest but, most importantly, the desire is there.

Now — with the carrot of the Champions­ Challenge and Olympic qualification tournaments in 2011 — if only they can secure more funding.

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