SA men's hockey team head coach Fabian Gregory will be looking for more cohesion in the World Cup playoff for 11th and 12th places against Malaysia. Photo: STANISLAS BROCHIER
at The Hague
The Tale of Two Teams might be the book title when describing South Africa and counterparts Malaysia’s fortunes at men’s Hockey World Cup 2014 here in Holland.
They face-off in the 11th/12th place playoff match at 1.30pm (7.30pm Mas time) in the Kyocera Stadium Thursday and it is a difficult one to call.
Both finished bottom of their Groups, both are winless, and both have suffered similar ailments. Unforced errors in defence and attack, leaking soft goals and blowing chances in the strike zone have been the themes.
Linked to this – and possibly the central theme – far too much ball has been given away - or turned over by their sharper opponents.
Head coach Fabian Gregory’s SA side were desperately unlucky not to beat world number seven South Korea in their 0-0 draw in Group B and victory there would have guaranteed at least a 9th/10th playoff match – not bad for a side that only got together as a group of 18 two weeks before the opening match.
Yet there have been moments of sublime hockey from the African champs, none more so than University of Johannesburg midfielder Clint Panther’s wonderful goal against semi-finalists Argentina in Tuesday’s last Group B match for the men in green and gold.
Malaysia can also point to a 3-2 defeat by India and a 2-0 loss to world number four England as two Group A matches that saw relatively close scores.
There are other similarities. Both sides have beaten and lost to each other in the recent past - and SA and Malaysia are 12th and 13th in the world rankings respectively.
Apart from wanting to avoid bottom place at the four-yearly showpiece, there are valuable world ranking points at stake.
Cleaning up their mistakes and sharpening the rapier in the strike zone will serve both sides well in what is a vital match for each.
Gregory, who is director of hockey at Glenwood High School in Durban in his day job, and his players have bravely faced an uphill battle against professional teams with full-time, paid players - and countries that boast national programmes and training centres.
But as he has said at post-match Press conferences, South Africa is a proud nation of eternal optimists. The Malaysians are also fiercely loyal to their homeland – and it that common characteristic - pride - found in both sides that might make the difference in what is shaping up to be an intriguing battle of wills that not even the most seasoned observers here dare put money on.