Cape Town - The South Africa men’s hockey team staved off relegation in beating unpredictable Poland 4-2 (half-time 3-0) in the playoff for seventh and eighth places at the eight-country Champions Challenge tournament in Quilmes, Argentina on Sunday.
In the first 14 minutes an on-fire SA scored through striker Lloyd Norris-Jones of Western Province, Matthew Guise-Brown of Northern Blues (his maiden Test match goal) and classy KZN Coastal Raiders midfielder Tim Drummond before the latter’s provincial team-mate and partner in the engine room, Taine Paton, made the game safe six minutes from the end.
World No 16 Poland, whose second-half goals came from Marcin Lewartowski and Adrian Krokosz, had beaten world No 7 South Korea 5-4 in Group A earlier in the week.
Both teams were desperate not to be relegated to the Champions Challenge II level, which is effectively the third division - behind Champions Trophy and Champions Challenge I, the event in Argentina.
“We played some outstanding hockey, but once again let ourselves down (in the strike zone) and had at least four clear-cut opportunities which we did not convert,” said SA head coach Gregg Clark. “It’s unacceptable for our (world No 12) ranking and aspirations.”
Clark has praised South Africa’s excellent build-up play in most of the matches but has reflected ruefully on the team’s inability to convert that into more goals in the attacking third of the field.
Lots of domination, statistically better numbers than the opposition in terms of strike-zone entries, goal shots and penalty corners, but not securing a result - the most important stat - because the quality of execution in the final third of play was below what is required to be effective at this level.
SA captain Austin Smith, the former World All Stars midfielder, has also ruminated on the team’s dominance in a number of matches, yet the inability to convert that percentage into more goals has often left this South African team with nothing, which has resulted in the team ending lower in the placings in Argentina than they should be - even with the fact that nine London 2012 Olympians are not on this trip and also including the fact that this team is the most inexperienced in Quilmes.
The opening quarter showed what this team can do when on-song: SA went 1-0 up in the seventh minute when Norris-Jones cut in from the right and crashed a backhand shot into the goal; 2-0 up in the 13th when Guise-Brown drag-flicked a penalty corner into the net and 3-0 up in the 14th when Drummond drilled home from the top of the strike zone, before Smith hit the left post with a powerful PC drag-flick.
SA made a strong start to the second half with Norris-Jones forcing a fine save from Poland keeper Maciej Pacanowski before the irrepressible trigger man fired in another shot from the left that came close.
SA 'keeper Jacques le Roux got down low to make a save from a Poland PC drag-flick before Lewartowski scored from close range with 11 minutes left after a PC had broken down. Paton then slammed in a loose ball to seal the win for SA.
Krokosz’s consolation goal came three minutes from the final whistle when he moved into the strike zone from the right before his pass hit an SA foot and trickled in.
In the later games, world No 16 Japan face world 14 Canada for fifth/sixth places, No 13 Malaysia tackle No 15 Ireland for the bronze medal and tournament top seeds South Korea take on world 10 Argentina in the gold medal title match.