On a windy and warm afternoon in Johannesburg, South Africa and France played out a thrilling 2-2 draw to open the four match test series. Both sides are gearing up for the Hockey World Cup in India and are using this series to fine tune their final preparations.
For South Africa, captained by Keenan Horne, it was also a celebration on two ends of the experience spectrum. Long-time servant of the game Lance Louw celebrated his 100th cap while Peabo Lembethe earned his first. It was also the first time that Mark Hopkins would lead the country on South African turf.
The opening quarter featured a lot of ball possession by France with South Africa offering moments of excitement through Dayaan Cassiem and Nic Spooner. Although France produced three shots in the opening quarter, not one was on target as both teams struggled to build momentum and continued passages of play. However, as they game progressed there was better synergies being shown and connections being made.
In the second quarter France upped the pressure and immediately found themselves trailing. South Africa employing a counter-attack plan that was highly effective. Nic Spooner won the ball in the middle of the park, drove through the centre and laid it off to Julian Hykes. The 36-year-old finished with a superb tomahawk strike to give the hosts the lead. It was a lead that only lasted four minutes as Victor Charlet fired home the first penalty corner of the game. It would remain 1-1 at half-time with France having the slightly better game.
The third quarter was however one for the South Africans to create three massive opportunities, unfortunately without scoring. Austin Smith fired narrowly wide from a penalty corner, Tommy Hammond set Dayaan Cassiem one on one with Thieffry in the French goal, only to shoot narrowly wide and when Cassiem returned the favour Hammond was unable to control. It was the lack of ruthlessness that would have frustrated the coaching staff as France took the lead early in the fourth quarter. Man of the match Tom Genestet, playing in his 168th test match, drove in from the right and fired a slap bullet past Gowan Jones into the top left corner.
This is a new South Africa though, soaking up pressure and launching superb counter attacks with Hykes, Spooner and Cassiem coming to the fore. It was no surprise that the equaliser involved the trio. With Spooner distributing the ball from midfield it worked its way up to Hykes who turned on top D. Thieffry saved the shot but Cassiem was there to prod home the equaliser. The youngster was delighted with his contribution and rightfully so.
There was one more chance for South Africa through another counter attack, but with Taine Paton earning a harsh green card at the end the lads had to hang on which they did.
For Mark Hopkins and his coaching team there will be lots to work on ahead of the second test tomorrow, but there were massive positive signs. Probably more satisfying is the spirit and culture that appeared present. South Africa look to be a side playing for each other, something that will only strengthen the national team’s endeavours.
South Africa (Hykes 18’ & Cassiem 52’) 2-2 France (Charlet 23’ & T.Genestet 47’)
Second Test – Sunday 4 November – 12:00 – Wits Hockey Astro