7 May 2012
The South Africa men’s hockey team qualified for the Olympic Games on Sunday, claiming the last hockey ticket for London by beating host nation Japan 2-1 in the final of a qualifying tournament in Kakamigahara.
The victory means that the men will join the women’s team at the Olympics after the women clinched their place by winning the Olympic Qualifier in New Delhi in February.
“I am elated and chuffed for the players. Winning this final is a very satisfying achievement,” said coach Gregg Clark after the final.
Clark had previously been part of the South Africa’s team that qualified for the 2000 Olympics, but was subsequently barred from competing by Nocsa, the country’s Olympic body at the time, without being given a further qualifying opportunity like his team this year.
“In our life cycle as a team, we are still learning how to handle games where a team comes hard at us and puts us under a lot pressure as, due to financial constraints, we play so few matches and spend so little time together compared to other teams,” he continued.
‘We will get better’
Assessing his charges’ performance in the final, Clark said: “We did get a few things wrong, but the guys will learn from it. We will get better.
“We came through strong. The character in this team is strong. We wanted it really badly and there were loads and loads of things we did really well that made the difference in the end.”
After a goalless first half a a stunning field goal from Thornton McDade, plus a coolly taken effort by Lloyd Norris-Jones proved the difference in an emotion-charged title match, while a late goal from Kenji Kitazato for Japan made for a tension-filled finish as the hosts piled on the pressure.
After patient build-up, striker Marvin Harper got in the first shot of the final in the third minute, but Japan’s goalkeeper Shunsuke Nagoya saved well. At the other end, Rassie Pieterse timed his advance perfectly to block Hiroki Sakamoto’s shot.
Umpires David Gentles (Australia) and Jed Curran (Scotland) are experienced in these high-pressure matches and the teams were in good hands, but in the 11th minute Japan were awarded a penalty corner that South Africa disputed. The decision stood as SA opted not to use their one video referral allowed, and Pieterse saved to his right from Katsuyoshi Nagasawa.
Midway through the opening stanza, Lloyd Madsen’s long ball down the right found Julian Hykes, whose strong cross let Wade Paton in for a snap shot that went just wide.
Towards half-time Japan pressed hard, but the threat was negated and Tim Drummond forced a top quality low save to goalkeeper Nagaoka’s right once the momentum shifted.
The sheer pace of Lloyd “Chuck” Norris-Jones earned South Africa their first penalty corner with exactly five minutes to go to the break and a variation to the third castle saw Andrew Cronje win another. SA went back to the more regular double castle and Justin Reid-Ross’s drag-flick was gloved away by the keeper.
Soon after the changeover South Africa had two excellent opportunities to turn possession into goal shots, but the final passes went astray and a breakout from deep saw Japan striker Kenta Tanaka come agonisingly close to opening the scoring.
A four-man move some time later led to some tense moments, but the outstanding Pieterse was on hand to block the Japanese offensive.
A dazzling piece of stickwork
Seconds later striker McDade, at 31 the “old man” of the side, found space on the right and opened the scoring after a dazzling piece of stickwork in close confines that wrong-footed the keeper before he was able to tap the ball into the net.
With 20 minutes left, South Africa had a chance to go two goals clear but somehow Japan emerged intact from the goalmouth scramble and at the other end the hosts won their second penalty corner when Gentles ruled South Africa had infringed in the 23m area.
South Africa lost another defender when Jonty Robinson, the first wave runner, was adjudged to have broken too early, but the danger turned into opportunity on the counter-attack after the penalty corner was brilliantly defended and a few plays later Norris-Jones made it 2-0 with a clinical finish.
With 16 minutes to the final whistle Japan was still in it as their lightning-quick forwards are capable of scoring two or three goals in no time, but the SA tackling continued in impeccable vein, and Ian Haley’s chance to make it three was then thwarted by the in-form Nagaoka.
Gentles awarded Japan a penalty corner, but South African captain Austin Smith opted to use his team’s one video referral and the choice was wise.
However, Japan got their third penalty corner a few plays later, then a fourth, and a fifth. South Africa survived and Pieterse then made a great save from field play, but after sustained pressure Japan’s Kenji Kitazato pulled one back with six minutes left on the clock with a shot across the goalie.
With three minutes left McDade broke free and fed Norris-Jones, whose shot was saved by the advancing Nagaoka.
With just 98 seconds remaining Japan subbed their goalkeeper with a field player and Pieterse made a brilliant save shortly thereafter.
It was agony for the few South African supporters at the ground as the seconds crawled by, but finally it was over and SA had booked the last ticket to London.
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