Words: Jonathan Cook
The South Africa men’s hockey team edged a superb China 4-3 on penalty shootout last Saturday after the Pool A match was locked 4-4 in regulation time.
Photo credit: ACTION PIX
Saturday, they meet again in the Greenfields FIH World League Round 2 tournament semi-finals at 4.15 pm at Hartleyvale in Cape Town.
At stake is a berth in Sunday’s 4.15pm final against the winners of Saturday’s 2pm semi-final between Egypt and France.
The three medallists on Sunday, gold and silver from the final, and the bronze medal winners in the 2pm play-off for third place between the Saturday's losing semi- finalists, go through to one of the two World League Semi-Final events.
A top four place at either of those tournaments later this year would guarantee SA Rio 2016 Olympic Games qualification.
Should SA beat China, they will then face another major challenge against the quality Egypt or France line-ups in the final.
And should they lose to China they will face even more uncertainty, knowing that they would have to win the bronze medal match on Sunday to keep the Olympic dream alive.
This situation makes the China semi-final Saturday of enormous importance.
Success would mean automatic qualification for the World League Semi Final tournaments and essentially Sunday’s match will be about national pride.
The SA/China clash will be played at a furious pace and the role of midfielder Clint Panther and his fellow engine room mates will be critical in slowing down China's lightning counter attacks.
SA captain Austin Smith’s team will need to take the initiative from the outset and determine the nature and pace of the game.
Smith has been lethal at penalty corner time and tops the goalscoring list with five successful strikes.
Up front, SA have an exciting blend of experience in the likes of Julian Hykes, Taine Paton and Pierre de Voux, and the boundless energy of the greener Western Province duo Keenan Horne and Shannon Boucher.
The SA defence must be mindful of having numbers behind the ball once the superb pace of the Chinese counter on turnover ball is launched
SA shot-stopper Rassie Pieterse would no doubt prefer not to be concerned about Long Sun’s opportunist instincts off the top of the strike zone and much happier to see opposing keeper Rui Xu jumping off his goalline.
Zecheng Li’s quick strikes are a concern and he will need to be expertly managed.
The pace off the goalline of first-wave defender Weibao Ao may force SA into trying variation moves on PC attack.
It will be of critical importance that the umpires sell their decisions well as player frustration got increasingly out of control in the Pool match as virtually every decision was questioned.
SA press hard for goal chances but the combinations must piece together a sufficient sequence of passes in order for the numerous promising attacks to bear fruit.
SA: Rassie Pieterse (GK), Dylan Swanepoel, Rhett Halkett, Austin Smith (capt), Matt Guise-Brown, Jet Eustice, Clint Panther, Tim Drummond, Taine Paton, Pierre de Voux, Julian Hykes. Rolling subs:Gowan Jones (GK), Dan Bell, Robin Jones, Dan Sibbald, Natius Malgraff, Keenan Horne, Shannon Boucher.
China: Rui Xu (GK), Zhixuan Zhang, Yue Huang, Zipeng Wang, Zecheng Li, Chen Du, Liguang E, Long Sun, Weibao Ao, Tianjun Sun (capt), Yixian Li. Rolling subs:Rongyao Yan (GK), Lei Meng, Yang Ao, Talake Du, Bowen Wang, Xiaoping Guo, Wei Meng.