South Africa had overcome a slow start to find themselves in the FIH Hockey Series Finals final four. On a sweltering hot Bhubaneswar, the African champions took on the team that defeated them in the opening game USA. USA had finished top of the pool and skipped the Quarter-Final stage, while South Africa had secured their place in the semi-final with a thrilling 2-1 win over Russia.
The South Africans started the game the better side and created a few opportunities including three penalty corners. USA however managed to keep the South Africans at bay and with 5 seconds left on the clock won their first penalty corner of the match. When Aki Kaeppeler fired home the corner there would have been a few flashbacks from the South Africans after a similar pattern had developed in the opening game between the two.
But Garreth Ewing’s side have come a long way in the tournament and they proceeded to dominate the game and dictate the pace under very trying conditions due to the heat. Although dominating the possession the South Africans were not quite creating enough circle penetrations and headed into the half-time break 1-0 down with a few players guilty of snatching at chances presented.
But the break eventually came when South Africa won their fifth penalty corner of the match and Austin Smith stood tall and fired home. Smith is the highest capped player in the squad and his ability to handle the emotions at the time of pressure was telling in setting the game up for a grand stand finish.
As the African’s surged forward looking for a winning goal USA created the best chance of the game when Christian de Angelis missed the ball in front of an open goal and it struck his foot. It was the kind of chance that could have broken the resilience of the South Africans, but instead inspired them that they had to take advantage of that get out of jail card.
They did just that in the fourth quarter creating 10 circle entries to the USA’s 2, but with 1-minute left in the game it looked like we were headed to showdowns. Siya Nolutshungu was out stretching in preparation before an entire field move from back to front fell to Owen Mvimbi, his pass looked out of reach for Bili Ntuli, but the superb forward dived forward to reach the ball and fired a shot towards goal. Nicholas Spooner was the quickest to react and diverted the ball passed Klages in the USA goal with 34 seconds on the clock. That would be all, and South Africa had secured their place in the final, but more importantly in the next stage of the Olympic Qualification process.
Having headed to the tournament with hopes of a top 2 finish, the slow start may have quelled that ambition slightly. Well it would have if this was not a South African side. South Africans are at their best when their backs are against the wall and the quintessential characteristic of a South African sportsman is their ability to dig deep when few give them a chance. This team is full of South Africans and that’s the ultimate compliment I can pay to them.
FIH Hockey series Finals – Semi-Finals
South Africa 2 (Smith 42’ & Spooner 60’)
USA 1 (Kaeppeler 15’)
South Africa vs. India – 15 June 2019 – 15:45 SA Time
Picture - Hockey India