Best-ever SA hockey squad begging for more Tests

2010-09-03 00:00

THE one certainty for the head coach of the South Africa men’s hockey team is that absolutely nothing is certain.

While other top international sports coaches have to deal with the uncertainties of winning or losing and building a world-class team, SA hockey coach Gregg Clark is never even sure when or where the national team’s next match will come from.

Consequently, the world-class former SA player with well over 200 Test matches to his name has his heart in his mouth when contemplating whether the men in green and gold will even be allowed to take part in the London 2012 Olympic Games.

And unlike every sports code in every country, qualifying for the event by winning the Africa Cup of Nations — the International Olympic Committee requires each continent to be represented at the Games’s four-year hockey showdown — is not even enough to satisfy the SA Sports Congress and Olympic Committee (Sascoc).

Which international sports coach in the world would live with such uncertainty?

Quite typically the Durban-raised man who was player/coach of Maritzburg Collegians for a season steers the conversation towards the detrimental effect this lamentable situation has on his players.

“Our biggest challenge is lack of resources and it can be very frustrating for the players,” Clark says.

“For instance, if you know you are attending a tournament, you can prepare in advance and there’s peace of mind knowing that you will be going.”

Clark revealed the remarkable fact that since the Hero Honda World Cup in March, where captain Austin Smith’s men were so competitive, the national team have not played a single Test match ahead of their next major hurdle, the Commonwealth Games in Delhi next month.

Yet Sascoc president Gideon Sam has gone on record saying nothing less than a top four finish will convince him SA are worthy of London 2012. And among others, SA are up against no less than Australia, England, New Zealand, Pakistan, Canada and India — all ranked above them and who one suspects have been in squad training and playing Test matches with dizzying regularity.

Talk about uneven playing fields!

Clark is trusting Sascoc will come to understand that his team have the potential to reach higher than any side since re-admission 18 years ago.

“I have been involved with the national team in a playing, selecting or coaching capacity for two decades and I truly believe this squad is the most talented I have seen,” says the man who is not one for exaggeration.

“These things go in cycles and although [they are] still a bit young, in about four years, if we can keep them together, this group will be an outstanding side.

“Austin Smith made the world side two years ago and these guys are really hungry and driven. There’s plenty of talent around, but even more significantly these guys are prepared to do the hard yards.”

Despite having no international competition, the former KZN captain has run a number of training camps this year, which have also seen the team benefit from outside help.

“We’ve had Andrew Meredith, the Australian-born coach who is assistant coach of Germany, with us and he did some good stuff, especially defensively,” Clark said.

“At the World Cup we scored the most goals of the sides who were not in the top four, but we also conceded field goals and penalty corners, and that’s an area we need to improve on.”

Despite all the obstacles, Clark is not the sort to give up: “You know, I enjoy the team environment and I’m following my passion.”

For South African hockey’s sake, long may the fire in Clark’s belly continue to burn.

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