POTCHEFSTROOM, SOUTH AFRICA - 27 January 2008, Rassie Pieterse during the International Hockey friendly match between South Africa and Poland held at the North West University hockey centre in Potchefstroom, South Africa. Photo by Duif du Toit / Gallo Images

Kevin McCallum

In his time as a player, Gregg Clark, coach of the South African men’s team, has experienced the highs and lows of international tournament hockey. He last played in the Olympics in Athens 2004 in a South African team that was perhaps one of the greatest the country has put on an international stage.

They finished 10th in Athens, but were desperately unlucky with umpiring decisions against the Netherlands that could have swung their tournament around.

Now Clark is coaching a team that have the look of that 2004 side about them and at the FIH Olympic qualifying tournament in Kakamigahara, Japan, which begins today, is hoping to take them to the biggest stage in international hockey. Should he succeed, it will be his fourth trip to the Olympics, his second as coach.

“I think Clarkie has brought a lot to the team,” said Rassie Pieterse, the South African goalkeeper. “He was a world class hockey player in his day. He’s been around the world and played a lot of international club hockey, not just for his country.

“He knows exactly what a player needs; he knows when a player needs rest; he knows when he can push a player and I think that’s a great advantage for us.

“What Clarkie has taught us over the years has been the finer details that are needed in international sport. The finer detail makes sure you get the result you want.

“If you look at the 100-metre sprint – the difference between the guy who finished first and smashed the world record and the guy who finished eighth has as much to do working on the small details as the amount of natural talent. That’s the difference between being average and world class. Working on the finer details has made us a stronger team and has given us the results – like with our recent win over Great Britain, who are ranked fourth in the world and who are hosting the Olympics.”

Like the women’s team, South Africa will have taken the long way around if they are to qualify for London. They took bronze in the Champions Challenge in Johannesburg last year, but needed to make the final to qualify automatically. Six matches lie between them and London, starting with Brazil at 11.30am today.

“We’re here as the highest ranked team, which gives us an advantage. We know it won’t be easy playing Japan in their own backyard, so we have to be on top of our games.

“We have to be confident and we know that we have a special team at the moment,” said Pieterse, who acknowledged the challenges the team has had to overcome in terms of a lack of sponsorship and financial backing.

“I think it’s always difficult, but I think it’s the same in any amateur sport. This team is special, and I think this team is special because of what happens between the four white lines.

“If we have to fund ourselves to get to training camps and drink out of a tap, then we’ll do that. At the end of the day we know what our goals are, we know what we want to achieve and we try to be as professional as we can.”

Match schedule:

Today: v Brazil (11.30 am SA time); April 28: v Czech Republic (3am SA time); April 30: v China (11.30 am SA time); May 2: v Japan (9 am SA time); May 4: v Austria (11.30am SA time); May 6: Classification matches (5/6 places); (3/4 places); final (8am SA time) (Note – SuperSport will broadcast the classification matches on May 6. Japanese TV are not broadcasting the round-robin matches)

South Africa:

Austin Smith (captain), Andrew Cronjé, Lloyd Norris-Jones, Ian Haley (all Western Province); Wade Paton, Lloyd Madsen, Tim Drummond, Marvin Harper, Taine Paton (all KZN Coastal Raiders); Rassie Pieterse, Michael Smith, Lance Louw, Thornton McDade, Clint Panther (all Southern Gauteng); Jonty Robinson, Rhett Halkett, Justin Reid-Ross (all Northern Blues); Julian Hykes (Amatole-Border). Management: Head coach: Gregg Clark. Assistant coach: Kurt Cerfontyne. Manager: Anton van Rooyen. Assistant manager: Mo Malebye. Physio: Kate-Lyn Temple-Jones