Photo - Helge Schutz
Far away from the fanfare that has surrounded the last three years of PSi Hockey Nationals, the men are now 10 000km away in Berlin facing an altogether different challenge at the 2018 FIH Indoor Hockey World Cup. The opening day was always going to be the opportunity for the BlitzStoks to test if they have closed the gap over the elite of the world Indoor Hockey circuit.
In Leipzig in 2015, South Africa met Russia on day 2 and was soundly beaten by 10 goals to 2. The South African men were looking to show that defensively they were far more resolute this time around as they met the Eastern Europeans in their opening game of the tournament.
The BlitzStoks started the game with a degree of apprehension that saw them welcome a tough half-court press and territorial dominance for the Russians, however as the dust started to settle the BlitzStoks grew in composure. Rusten Abrahams, Ryan Julius, and Jethro Eustice fashioned goal scoring opportunities for South Africa who also won the opening penalty corner of the game. The BlitzStoks arguably had their best patch between the 10th and 14th minutes of the match. Their inability to create and finish goal chances would be costly as Russia turned the screw and broke the deadlock through Pavel Golubev.
On the stroke of half-time South Africa gave away a penalty corner and Chris McCathie had to pick the ball out the net for the second time after a precision Mikhail Proskuriakov flick found the corner. The second half followed a similar tentative start as the first, with South Africa doing sitting off and inviting pressure on to their defense. The major difference in the two teams was the cutting edge in front of goal. South African opportunities were denied relatively easily and Russia scored two more through Proskuriakov and a penalty stroke by Iaroslov Loginov. Proskuriakov would net his hat-trick in the last minute after the BlitzStoks had pulled off Curtis to play with 6 outfield players. 5-0 the game finished, but there was little time to ponder on the result as the BlitzStoks would return to the field a couple of hours later to take on European Champions Austria.
South Africa had only ever played Austria once before and that was 11 years ago when Austria handed South Africa their heaviest defeat at the 2007 World Cup in Vienna. That was an Austrian team that finished the tournament 6th, not the juggernaut that has come off the back of winning the European Championship just two weeks ago.
The BlitzStoks again employed a counter-attacking performance soaking up large periods of pressure and attempting to use their pace to break. The tactic is extremely effective if you can limit the opposition chances, but when you are playing Austria they don’t need too many chances to punish you. The early Austrian goal by Benjamin Stanzl did not deflate the South Africans, but they raised their game and after great work by Rusten Abrahams, Jethro Eustice leveled with a fine finish. Benjamin Stanzl put Austria back ahead before a contentious penalty stroke was awarded after the half-time hooter, but it was superbly denied by Richard Curtis.
Austria raised the game in the second half with two quick-fire goals including a bullet from Michael Korper. When it looked like South Africa would throw in the towel and fall to a heavy defeat, they continued to fight and Matt Fairweather and Mo Mea each added goals from the penalty corner as consolations for the South African men. The final score ending as Austria 6-3 South Africa.
Although there were positives from day one, there was a lot to think about for Pierre le Roux and his coaching staff. Tomorrow is a massive day as South Africa must get at least one win in the matches against Iran and Switzerland to maintain hopes of a top 4 group finish and a top 8 overall finish.
Special thanks to the BlitzStoks sponsors Tops at SPAR, Sunlife Vitamins, Gem Schoolwear, Tayla Sportswear and Pro Series Indoor.