The art of battling giants

2014-09-06 00:00

MISSION impossible; that was how every seasoned hockey fan would have viewed the Western Province B side’s chances of winning the premier domestic hockey tournament in the country, the Greenfields Men’s Interprovincial.

Win it Western Province Peninsula did, becoming the first B team in history to win the flagship event on the SA hockey calendar.

Working through two draws against hotly favoured opponents, and a win in Pool B before edging South Africa’s star-studded provincial hockey giants, Tuffy Western Province (11 SA-capped players) 2-1 in the semi-finals. Defending champs WP had cruised into the semis, topping Pool A with three wins from three, scoring 13 goals with just three against.

The 2-1 final win over Fedex Southern Gauteng, with their 14 SA-capped players, at Queensmead in Durban last Saturday, was one of the most memorable finals you are ever likely to witness. The tension was agonising as Southerns fought back in vain from two goals down, the Pens defence magnificent.

So how did they do it? Pens’ 38-year-old player/coach Steve Evans, the Athens 2004 Olympian, was the architect of the giants’ destruction by the “little guy”.

The engineering graduate and businessman who was educated at Maritzburg College and University of Cape Town adopted an intellectual approach. It was absorbed and applied by his players — many of them university graduates or students, including a recently qualified medical doctor in Pens captain Raaghib Fredericks and senior actuarial science student, the Maritzburg College Old Boy Marc Fourie.

The primary inspiration behind Evans’s strategy was Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath, the subtitle being “Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants”.

“My message to the players was that underdogs play by their own rules, it was about the characteristics of the underdog; how do underdogs unsettle and disrupt opponents,” said Evans, who played 96 Test matches for SA in his heyday.

Evans only intended to coach, but four WP player withdrawals meant four Pens players went up to the province’s A side, while further injuries to non-travelling reserves led to the point when Evans decided to play.

“I still play league hockey, and trained with the team during the build-up as I enjoy a hands-on approach to coaching. In hindsight, it was fortunate that I played, as I was able to control our defensive structure, and illustrate to my players first hand how to unsettle key opposition players, and show them how important the mental side of the game is.”

Evans believes a player’s mindset is critical to success. “Your mindset determines how you apply yourself in everything you do; for example how you train, eat, what visualisation you do, your mental prep, recovery process, injury management, all the facets that make up a world-class athlete.”

The 2002 Commonwealth Games, Manchester, player believes the role of a coach is to guide, shepherd his players. “One of the fundamental things towards empowering your players is to set a framework within which players can be accountable for the decisions they make, and to create and empower sub-groups within the team including a leadership group rather than relying on one captain, for example.

“Without structure every man begins to play for himself. Everything we did off the field fed back into what we were trying to achieve. Every player knew exactly what his role was in the structure. My objective had always been to share as much of my experience as I could, and I underlined the points I was trying to make by telling them stories that they could associate to.”

Evans, who last played IPT six years ago and had won six IPTs up till then, walked the talk and was undoubtedly Pens’ most influential player. He said the team believed from the outset that they could make the top four and their fundamental strategy was to defend in order to win.

“If we had adopted an attacking strategy against better-skilled opponents we would have been punished on the turnovers. We also knew we would create chances, but had to convert the tiny percentage of goalshots we got. As the tournament progressed, so too the belief in team and being able to go all the way.”

Evans paid tribute to his team — “some of them can go all the way” — and management staff, which included assistant coach, the Capetonian and injured SA captain Austin Smith; WP coach Pierre le Roux and his players; the strong admin and proactive support of WP Hockey Union; and the willingness of Pinelands player Jack Thonissen to fly in to Durban at short notice to play in the last three, massive matches.

“I’ve had many amazing hockey experiences and this one was without a doubt one of the best,” said Evans.


Pool B: drew 1-1 with KZN Coastal Raiders; beat KZN Inland 4-0; drew 2-2 with Southern Gauteng. Semi-final: beat Tuffy Western Province 2-1. Final: beat Southern Gauteng 2-1.

Pens selected for SA squad: Striker Keenan Horne and midfielder Marc Fourie.

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