Saturday’s finale brought a fitting end to day one of what promises to be an action-packed Greenfields FIH World League Round 2 event at Hartleyvale Hockey Stadium in Cape Town over the course of the next week.
SA face a massive challenge against the classy, street-wise Egypt in the much-anticipated Africa continent derby at 4.15pm Sunday that could well decide the outcome of Pool A.
The SA/China Pool A clash started at a furious pace and in the first minute the green and gold’s shot-stopper Rassie Pieterse made a fine save from Long Sun’s snap-shot off the top of the strike zone. SA countered at lightning speed and Taine Paton’s cross from the left saw strike mate Pierre de Voux’s effort foiled by keeper Rui Xu advancing smartly off his goalline.
The left channel was to China’s liking and Zecheng Li’s quick strike brought a reflex block from Pieterse. The pressure told when China won a disputed penalty corner off the whistle of Tomas Holek of Czech Republic in the sixth minute.
A hotly disputed goal awarded by Holek in the seventh minute was the result, after Pieterse had made the initial save from Lixian Liu’s PC drag-flick. From the rebound, the ball was eventually scrambled over the line by Liguang E after a frantic goalmouth melee (1-0). Pieterse was furious at Holek’s decision but the umpire was unmoved by the stopper’s animated gesticulations.
China continued to pile on the pressure and central defender Rhett Halkett plus midfielder Clint Panther were just two of the SA players galvanised into making goal-threatening intercepts during this charged-up encounter. The lads in green and gold came back well in the dying minutes of the first of the four 15-minute chukkas but the equaliser was not to be.
Not 45 seconds into the second chukka, Zecheng was awarded a deflection goal by Holek, much to the Chinese striker’s visible surprise, but the incredulous reaction of the South Africans brought the umpires together and the Czech official’s consult with fellow whistle-blower Eduardo Lizana of Spain saw sanity prevail - much to the packed grandstand’s delight.
Spectator appreciation grew markedly 83 seconds later (18th minute) when centre back and captain Austin Smith nailed the equaliser low to keeper Xu’s right off SA’s second consecutive PC, the first bravely blocked by the electrifying pace off the goalline of first-wave defender Weibao Ao.
At 1-1 it felt as if an entire match-worth’s action had been crammed into what had been less than a third of this richly satisfying fixture’s regulation 60 minutes. However, the umpires were not selling their decisions well and player frustration got increasingly out of control as virtually every decision was questioned.
China went 2-1 up in the 23rd when Yixian Liu placed his PC drag-flick low to Pieterse’s right. And there was more 58 seconds from the close of the second stanza (29th minute) when that man Smith rifled home a PC drag-flick that threatened to burst the net (2-2).
Just 46 seconds after the half-time changeover a rocket drag-flick off yet another PC underlined that Smith’s new-generation Princess A5 stick - in its first Test match – was on the money, but ever-alert last line of defence Xu was up for the challenge.
In the 34th SA’s increasing assurance earned another PC and once again it was keeper Xu who denied Smith’s hat-trick effort. A dink-pass left by striker Julian Hykes saw fellow forward Paton’s goal-bound attempt pop agonisingly over the crossbar. The crowd went silent in the 36th when Talake Du’s PC drag-flick went high to Pieterse’s right and China were back in front (3-2). Within a minute (37th) it was 4-2 after Xiaoping Guo pounced on the rebound after Pieterse’s save.
SA continued to press hard but, as it had been for much of this enthralling contest, the combinations were not realising an adequate sequence of passes and numerous promising attacks were undone at the moment critique.
However that anomaly was soon forgotten three minutes from the close of the third chukka (42nd) when the crowd erupted after Hykes smashed the elusive white nut into the backboard off the top of the strike zone, this after Paton had held his nerve before making the goal-pass (4-3).
A minute into the fourth and final chukka (46th) the rapped crowd went wild when an unmarked Jet Eustice, lurking on the right, collected Tim Drummond’s visionary pass and slotted the ball between the sticks with comfort for the 4-4 scoreline; this after SA had launched their assault from the middle of the park.
The drama showed no sign of letting up when Paton again prised open China’s left-side defence line and Dan Sibbald’s one-handed deflection sliced past the wrong side of the post. In the 52nd Pieterse made an astonishing save at full stretch from Chen Du’s pinpoint PC drag-flick.
As the clock ticked down, both sides suffered the mortification of seeing potential game-breaking crosses from either wing slide just out of reach of despairing sticks, but the agony grew for SA in particular with just two minutes left when Hykes’ extreme pace saw the striker race around the right-hand baseline in a play that would have brought the winner on another day.
Draws are not entertained at International Hockey Federation (FIH) events and the teams went into a match-deciding penalty shootout.
It was nerve-jangling stuff and the on-song Smith, Panther, Halkett and Eustice slotted four of SA’s five chances, Paton’s effort sliding outside the post. After China’s Long Sun, Lei Meng and Chen Du enjoyed success – Liguang E was pressured by Pieterse into a mistake during his go – SA led 4-3 with one to play. With the tension at breaking point, Pieterse made a brilliant double save off that final attempt by Chinese captain Tianjun Sun and the men in green and gold took the three match points in a 4-4 (4-3) blockbuster that witnessed eight regulation-time goals and seven successful shootout strikes.
SA (2) 4 (Austin Smith 2, Julian Hykes, Jet Eustice) China (2) 4 (Liguang E, Yixian Liu, Talake Du, Xiaoping Guo).
Penalty shootout: SA 4 (Austin Smith, Clint Panther, Rhett Halkett, Jet Eustice) China 3 (Long Sun, Lei Meng, Chen Du).
Other results –
Egypt 3 Switzerland 1
France 4 Azerbaijan 0
Czech Republic 2 Belarus 0. .
Pool B: 9:30 Azerbaijan v Belarus; 11:45 Czech Republic v France.
Pool A: 14:00 China v Switzerland; 16:15 Egypt v South Africa
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.