The SA U21s had to use a penalty shootout to advance to the final of the men’s A Section in the Greenfields Senior Interprovincial Nationals at the Randburg Hockey Stadium on Friday, beating Northerns Blues 3-1 after their semi-final had ended 3-3 after regulation time.
Matthew de Sousa, Nqobile Ntuli and Ryan Crowe all showed impressive confidence and skill in scoring, while goalkeeper Robert McKinley was composure personified as he only allowed Kewan Harries to beat him in the shootout.
Much of the early stages of the match was played in the Northerns defensive area, as the SA U21s dominated midfield and ran hard at their opponents. But their failure to hang on to possession for more than two or three passes is definitely an area they can improve on and too many of their attacks broke down to the extent that they did not earn a single short-corner in the first chukka.
The first quarter finished goalless as Northerns defended stoutly and waited to catch the SA U21s on the break, but it was the Blues who opened the scoring in the 22nd minute when Matthew Guise-Brown sent a quality drag-flick from a short-corner whistling into the net.
But the SA U21s had a great chance to equalise just three minutes later, when they were awarded a penalty stroke for a player being pushed off the ball in the circle, but Kyle Lion-Cachet’s powerful flick went off the right post.
Northerns went into half-time 1-0 up , their mixture of predominantly former Maritzburg College and St Albans players defending well but not creating too many clearcut opportunities to score.
It was the SA U21s, the showroom for the factory of talent in South African hockey, who made the ideal start to the second half as they manufactured a short corner. A superb variation gave captain Alex Stewart the chance to shoot for goal and he rammed the ball home for the equaliser with barely a minute gone since the restart.
Ryan Julius, who owned the left-hand side of the park with his skilful runs, then set up the SA U21s second goal, which Stewart once again claimed, this time with a strong, well-placed shot into the right corner from the back-left of the D.
Northerns have a solid defence, led by the experienced Michael Marki and Guise-Brown, but they have a lack of real potent attacking threats up front and, faced with a 1-2 deficit, their response was almost sluggish.
Eventually though, they were able to win a short-corner in the 47th minute and, having such a dangerous flicker as Guise-Brown in their side, it proved enough to net them the equaliser as the international once again found the net on the right side of goal.
Both teams seemed content to have a shootout decide the outcome and it was the SA U21s who had the flair and confidence to give themselves a chance of being crowned national champions.