Photo by: Robert Swanepoel
With the Premier Hockey League (PHL) now just three days away, former captain of the national men’s team, Austin Smith, is relishing the opportunity to play in the competition for the first time.
Smith missed out on the 2016 PHL because of club commitments in the Netherlands, but timing has worked out in his favour this time around, and he’ll take to the field with the Drakensberg Dragons team when the action gets under way at the Randburg Astro in Johannesburg this Saturday.
“The tournament was run during the middle of the Dutch club competition last year and that's where I'm contracted to play and coach,” explained the 32-year-old Capetonian.
“I'm really looking forward to playing in the PHL for the first time. I followed it from afar last year and it looked like a lot of a fun. I've been fortunate enough to play in the Hockey India League and what I really enjoyed about that tournament was playing alongside players that I'd never had the chance to do so before. The PHL will be a very similar experience, playing with South African players that I usually only play against at inter-provincial tournaments.”
The Dragons team, coached by Sihle Ntuli, includes other marquee players such as Gowan Jones and Jethro Eustice – who Smith has played alongside in the national team – but also many that are new to him.
“I have to be honest, some of the players in my team I only know by name. I think that's half the fun of the PHL, getting to know other players in South Africa and learning from one another. I haven't played in the local league in South Africa for the past 12 years since I left to play overseas so it also gives me a chance to get back in touch with a lot of old playing mates,” he explained.
As for what he’s expecting from the PHL, which will be played over three consecutive weekends, with the playoffs taking place on 11-12 December, Smith added: “I heard that it took a few games to get the connections just right and it takes a lot of communication to get everyone on the same page. It's logical that it takes a while but I hope with the experience that we have in our team we are able to do that quicker and more effectively than other teams.”
The Dragons finished in bottom spot at last year’s tournament, but Smith is looking for nothing less than a win in 2017.
“I have never started any tournament hoping for anything besides the gold medal. Nothing motivates me more than the chance to win. Having not played last year I really have no idea what the level is like or how our team will fair, but I guarantee that we will be going for the gold,” he said.
The Drakensberg Dragons play the opening game of the tournament – against the Addo Elephants on Saturday morning at 8am. All matches will be broadcast live on SuperSport.