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Hockey World Cup - Widening gap a concern for Lads' Smith

Words: Eunice Visagie | Photos: Various photographers

Eunice Visagie
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It was great ending the Hockey World Cup in one place higher than their world ranking, but for the South African men’s hockey team - known as the Lads - it’s clear that the gap between them and the rest of the world is getting bigger.

Photo credit: Stanislas Brochier

The Netherlands (women) and Australia (men) won the 2014 World Cup recently held in The Hague. The Australians were the defending champions, while Argentina, the defending women’s champions, finished in third place. South Africa's men finished eleventh, while the women finished ninth.

According to the Lads’ captain Austin Smith, ending the tournament in eleventh place, while their world ranking is twelfth, is the single most positive aspect of the World Cup for the team. The concern though is the widening gap to the rest of the hockey teams in the world. “The gap between ourselves and the rest of the world is beginning to widen due to a large majority of the teams training full time, where in the past that was only the case with a handful of teams. Competing against teams who train full time is incredibly difficult and showed in some of our results.”

The Lads beat only Malaysia during the World Cup, in the play-off game for eleventh place. They also drew with Korea. There is no denying the high standard and quality of play during the World Cup. And even though South Africa conceded a lot of goals and did not score that many, Smith identified the opportunity to learn as a positive aspect of the tournament. “Playing at major tournaments always gives you a good understanding of areas you need to improve on as a team and as individuals. One area where we are clearly behind is in defending one on one, we are not at an international standard. This makes putting a team under any sort of sustained pressure too difficult because we are eliminated and the pressure is gone. The same can be said for our own attacking one on one's. We don't have enough players who are skillful enough to eliminate players, win penalty corners, create and overload or score.”

Conceding 21 goals to the 2 scored does not paint a pretty picture. And Smith is in no denial about this. “An argument can be made for us ending higher than our world ranking and coming close in the Korea game, but I certainly wasn't dreaming of eleventh place leading up to the World Cup. I would have been happier had we been more competitive in the rest of our pool games and at least had a chance of causing an upset late on in the game if our opposition hadn't been on their best form. Having said that, we were up against professional teams who had been preparing together at a number of camps, so I can't be too hard on the team.”

Photo credit: Plate Pictures

The standard at this World Cup was really high, but that doesn’t mean Smith is willing to use that as an excuse for not achieving a higher place. “The standard certainly was far higher than what I experienced in India in 2010. I have mentioned the growing gap. The difference between teams who have been preparing full time compared to those who just arrived in The Hague was clearly evident. I don't think I will ever arrive at the tournament hoping and playing for anything less than gold, but if I take a step back and look at where we are currently with SA hockey, I think if we had finished in the seventh-eighth play-off game that would have been a gold medal for us.”

While the South African team qualified to earn their right to play at the World Cup, participating in The Hague would not have been possible without the support from sponsors. The Lads almost had to watch the tournament as regular spectators. “Having DLA and SuperSport join Mugg and Bean meant we were able to attend the tournament, otherwise I would have joined the masses back in South Africa as a spectator because we simply didn't have the funding without their support.”
The biggest challenge is to close that growing gap. “The key is to try and grow those sponsorships into something more formal so we can prepare for tournaments in a similar fashion to the rest of the world,” said Smith.
The women’s team of Marsha Cox, who has a full-time sponsor in Investec, finished ninth, one place higher than the previous World Cup and two places higher than their eleventh place on the world rankings. They scored 11 goals and conceded 16. They managed to beat third-ranked England. It was also the last showing of the legendary Pietie Coetzee, who retired at the end of the tournament. She ended the tournament with 282 international goals, having played 287 games for her country during a career that stretched over 19 years.
Next up for the South African hockey teams is the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland, which start on 23 July. Good luck to both teams and fly our flag proudly.

The Common Wealth teams are:

Men: Andrew Cronje, Jean-Pierre de Voux, Timothy Drummond, Jethro Eustice, Rhett Halkett, Julian Hykes, Lloyd Norris-Jones, Robin Jones, Ignatuis Malgraff, Clinton Panther, Taine Paton, Wade Paton, Erasmus Pieterse, Jonathan Robinson, Austin Smith, and Lungile Tsolekile.

Women: Quanita Bobbs, Tarryn Bright, Dirkie Chamberlain, Bernadette Coston, Marsha Cox, Sulette Damons, Illse Davids, Lisa-Marie Deetlefs, Lilian du Plessis, Celia Evans, Lenise Marais, Jade Mayne, Shelley Russell, Kathleen Taylor, Nicolene Terblanche, and Anelle van Deventer.