SA ready for Olympic assault
Austin Smith (Gallo Images)
Kakamigahara, Japan - The South African men’s hockey team have looked razor-sharp at training and are geared up to face Brazil in their first match of the Olympic Qualifier Tournament at Gifu Green Stadium on Thursday, a tournament they have to win to qualify for London 2012.
The 18:30 (11:30 SA time) start is one that SA captain Austin Smith is anticipating with relish. “Everyone’s really excited to get going, feeling a bit better, a bit sharper now,” said the Beijing 2008 Olympian.
“The guys who came in [Monday night] from Europe have recovered from a bit of jet-lag, the guys who’ve been here close to a week are looking good and everyone’s looking forward to it.”
Thursday was the first practice with the whole team together, both the SA-based and European club-based players, and the focus was to some degree on set-pieces, both attacking and defensive penalty corners.
“We are looking to get off to a good start with the three points but more than that I hope we will get our pattern back,” said Smith.
The Den Bosch, Holland midfielder said the players in Europe have been playing different systems. “We are hoping to get back to the South African style and make effective connections. Brazil is the first step to the final; it’s really just one step at a time.”
SA head coach Gregg Clark said that apart from winning the match, he was interested in how the players perform as a unit against a team that is largely an unknown quantity on the international circuit.
“This match is very much about setting our own standards, focusing on our game, regardless of what we are going to come up against,” said Clark.
At 42nd in the world, Brazil are the lowest-ranked team while at 12th the men in green and gold are favoured to earn the sole ticket to London.
“I don’t think Brazil’s ranking is accurate with where they are at the moment,” said Clark.
“I think they have improved a lot because they have been playing a lot of international hockey recently.”
Brazil are hosting the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and hockey is a new focus for their Olympic governing body.
Clark is looking inward. “It’s just about us, and making sure we get our standard of play to a level of performance that we are comfortable with,” said the SA boss.
“On any given day we have match-winners, several guys who are capable of putting in match-winning performances, but it’s really just about us gelling as a team, getting some cohesion and coming off the pitch happy as a group with the way we performed.”
After Brazil, SA have a rest day on Friday before tackling the Czech Republic on Saturday at 10:00 (03:00 SA time).
Rassie Pieterse (Southern Gauteng), Michael Smith (Witwatersrand).Defenders:
Andrew Cronje (Western Province), Justin Reid-Ross (Northern Blues), Lance Louw (SG), Lloyd Madsen (KZN Coastal Raiders), Rhett Halkett (NB).
Jonty Robinson (NB), Clinton Panther (SG), Austin Smith (capt, WP), Tim Drummond (KCR), Wade Paton (KCR), Taine Paton (KCR).
Ian Haley (WP), Marvin Harper (KCR), Lloyd Norris-Jones (WP), Julian Hykes (Amathole-Border), Thornton McDade (SG).
SA match programme:
April 26: vs Brazil (11:30 SA time); April 28: vs Czech Republic (03:00 SA time); April 30: vs China (11:30 SA time); May 2: vs Japan (09:00 SA time); May 4: vs Austria (11:30 SA time); May 6: Classification matches (5/6 places); (3/4 places); final (08:00 SA time).