The South Africa men’s hockey team drew 3-3 with Japan in the tightest, most nerve-jangling clashes you are ever likely to see after the scores were locked 1-1 at half-time in their top-of-the log Olympic Qualifier Tournament match at Gifu Green Stadium in Japan on Wednesday.
Barring the most bizarre upsets in Friday’s final round, Japan and SA are now almost certainly through to Sunday’s 8am (SA time) final which will be televised live on SuperSport 6 and has as its prize the last ticket left for the men’s event at London 2012.
With 10 minutes to the break Japan won their first penalty corner, from which keeper Rassie Pieterse made a great double save before captain Kawakami Kei pounced on the rebound (1-0). Four minutes later Ian Haley whipped in a speculative cross and Lloyd Norris-Jones was on hand to equalise (1-1).
Both SA’s equalisers came within minutes after Japan scoring.
In the fourth minute a Justin Reid-Ross long ball to Haley found Marvin Harper who earned South Africa’s only penalty corner of the half but first wave defender Katsuyoshi Nagasawa comfortably ran down the opportunity. Pieterse in goal made a timely intervention on the quick Japanese counter-attack before Tim Drummond nearly decapitated the umpire with a slashing shot wide of the far post at the other end.
Five minutes after the changeover defender Madsen did superbly to block a golden opportunity but the Japanese won their second penalty corner soon after Nagasawa maintained their 100% success rate (2-1). SA combined with clockwork precision straight from the re-start for Norris-Jones to win his team’s second PC and Reid-Ross took his tournament tally to eight with a drag-flick rocket launcher (2-2).
A clever Hykes dummy enabled McDade’s slap shot but the nippy Kenta Tanaka stole away to make it 3-2 midway through the second half. SA won their third penalty corner straight away and this time Smith whose blistering drag-flick smashed into the cross bar and stayed out, much to the skipper’s disbelief.
Close calls came and went in both goal zones as play flew from end to end but Taine Paton’s nifty stickwork to win SA’s third penalty corner was undone by keeper Takase’s glove save. Then Andrew Cronje made a superb tackle to stem a Japanese one-two. In the last five minutes Japan were pinned in their defensive third amnd with two left SA won their fourth PC but the lightning-quick first-wave defender ran Reid-Ross’s drag-flick down. Keeper Takase was miraculous but the fifth penalty corner went SA’s way with 10 seconds left and Reid-Ross underlined why he is rated among the fastest drag-flickers in the world when he bulged the roof of the net (3-3).
Log in brief (played 4 unless stated): 1 Japan 19 points (goal difference 20); 2 South Africa 10 points (GD 17); 3 China (3) 6 points (GD 6); 4 Austria 6 points (GD -1); 5 Czech Republic (3) 0 points (GD -11); 6 Brazil 0 points (GD -31).
SA MATCH PROGRAMME/RESULTS
April 26: South Africa 11 Brazil 1; April 28: South Africa 6 Czech Republic 2; April 30: SA 5 China 2; May 2: SA 3 Japan 3; May 4: vs Austria (11.30 am SA time); May 6 (all live on SuperSport 6): Classification matches (5/6 places); (3/4 places); final (8 am SA time).
Goalkeeper: Rassie Pieterse (Southern Gauteng).
Defenders: Andrew Cronje (Western Province), Justin Reid-Ross (Northern Blues), Lance Louw (SG), Lloyd Madsen (KZN Coastal Raiders), Rhett Halkett (NB).
Midfielders: Jonty Robinson (NB), Austin Smith (capt, WP), Tim Drummond (KCR), Wade Paton (KCR), Taine Paton (KCR).
Strikers: Ian Haley (WP), Marvin Harper (KCR), Lloyd Norris-Jones (WP), Julian Hykes (Amathole-Border), Thornton McDade (SG).
Rested: Michael Smith (Witwatersrand), Clint Panther (SG). – Supplied