The Orange River Rafters completed their climb from rock bottom to the pinnacle of the Premier Hockey League, while the Crossroads Maropeng Cavemen stormed to a successful title defence in Johannesburg today.
After their extraordinary road to the final, the Rafters took the title with victory over the Private Property St Lucia Lakers while the Cavemen claimed a resounding win over the ProGrip Drakensberg Dragons.
It wasn’t the match the Rafters would have hoped for though as yet another Highveld thunderstorm took its toll on proceedings at the Randburg Astro. As a result of the persistent lightning the women’s final went straight to a shoot-out.
That’s not something the Rafters would have been relishing considering none of their previous matches in the tournament had gone to shoot-outs while the Lakers had played in two before that point. In fact, the Rafters had not even practised a shoot-out prior to the final.
But it seemed fate was on their side. With the scores level after the first round, they eventually sealed the deal with a 3-2 win to take the title that seemed so far out of their reach after the first weekend of matches when they suffered two losses and were written off by many as the tournament no-hopers.
“I don’t think anyone would have thought we’d be champions,” said a thrilled Rafters captain Sulette Damons, who finished as the tournament’s top goalscorer, despite missing the first weekend’s matches. “We were the underdogs but we took it game by game and everyone kept on believing and did so well to get us where we are.
“Obviously we wanted to play – it’s not nice to win like this and it’s unlucky for the St Lucia Lakers but at the end there has to be a winner and we’ll take it. We had a slow start but as they say – it’s how you end and we ended on a high note.
“We hadn’t practised shoot-outs at all so we just went in with hope and luck and faith. We finished bottom last year so to win this competition is just awesome.”
Rafters coach Shaun Hulley felt some sympathy for the Lakers, after serving as their assistant coach in 2016. “This morning I looked at the weather and I saw 5 o’ clock thunderstorms – I was hoping it wasn’t going to go to this. It’s not the greatest way to win. I know the Lakers girls really well and my heart really goes out to them. I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t be better if we just shared it, but in the competition you unfortunately have to have a winner. Our girls did play their hearts out this week though and I don’t want to deny them that so we’ll enjoy it,” he said afterwards.
Asked if he could ever have expected to take the title after that horrible opening weekend, Hulley admitted: “I would not have believed it. After our first weekend I was really worried. I didn’t know what was going to happen in the tournament but we did know that if we just stuck to our processes and kept focusing on what we could do we’d get better, and that’s what we did.” The coach also paid tribute to national stars Damons and Dirkie Chamberlain for their enormous contribution to turning things around for the team.
The clouds had cleared by the time the Cavemen took to the field to complete their mission of defending the title they won in 2016. Staying true to the game plan that’s worked so well for them so far, they slotted in an early goal – Brynn Cleak finding the back of the net in the 11th minute. Miguel da Graca then made things even more difficult for the Dragons when he doubled the Cavemen’s lead just three minutes later.
Dragons coach Sihle Ntuli has been talking all tournament about how his side were managing to make the most of the opportunities they were creating. But that wasn’t the case tonight as numerous chances went begging. By the time Michael Abrahams slotted in a third for the Cavemen at the end of the third quarter, the contest was all but over, with the 3-0 margin finally seeing them crowned deserved champions.
“Walking into the changeroom before the game I saw a couple of nervous faces,” admitted Cavemen captain Rassie Pieterse afterwards. “But we said a few nerves aren’t a bad thing. We got ourselves into the final so all we could do was play our socks off and our hearts out. It’s a great bunch of guys – really a brotherhood. That’s what the Cavemen are about and it really showed again this year.
“Winning the tournament back to back – I can’t be prouder. It shows a lot of character and it also shows a lot of character coming off the field and not conceding a goal. It’s one thing we worked on very hard – we went for the motto ‘defend to win’ and there’s nothing more we could have asked for,” added Pieterse.
“I’m just so chuffed lifting that trophy again – it’s such a beautiful trophy.”
Meanwhile, having dominated the first two weekends of PHL action and then suffering two consecutive losses to be relegated to the bronze-medal playoff, the Tivoli Blyde River Bunters, managed to bounce back with one last victory. There was only one goal in it, but the defending champions were determined to secure that third spot. Izelle Venter’s 45th minute goal from a penalty corner made sure of the 1-0 win over the Old Mutual iWYZE Namaqualand Daisies.
There was no such joy for last year’s men’s runners up, the Kilimanjaro Addo Elephants, though. Having scraped through to the playoffs after only two group game wins, they suffered a 6-1 drubbing at the hands of the Cavemen in yesterday’s semifinal. Then playing for the men’s bronze today, they were handed another loss. This time it was a closer affair. They found themselves 2-0 down against the Mapungubwe Mambas by the ninth minute, after goals from captain Owen Mavimbi and Greg Last. And while they managed to finally get one back, via Andrew Manson off a penalty corner in the third quarter, they just couldn’t find the equaliser and had to settle for fourth place after the 2-1 loss.
12 December 2017
Orange River Rafters 3-2 (shoot-out) Private Property St Lucia Lakers
Crossroads Maropeng Cavemen 3-0 ProGrip Drakensberg Dragons
Women’s bronze medal match:
Tivoli Blyde River Bunter 1-0 Old Mutual iWYZE Namaqualand Daisies
Men’s bronze medal match:
Mapungubwe Mambas 2-1 Kilimanjaro Addo Elephants