SA’s determined band of brothers bonded by more than hockey
David hasn’t quite slayed Goliath but he has landed a few blows which have shaken up the established order at these Commonwealth Games.
The men’s hockey team will see Monday’s bronze medal showdown against England as a further opportunity to bloody the nose of a higher-ranked opponent. Few outside that close-knit circle expect the men from South Africa to rip the medal from opponents who were considered unlucky to lose their own semi-final against world No 1 Australia.
But, there’s so much more to South Africa’s appearance in the bronze medal match against a pre-tournament favourite than meets the eye.
There are those who regard a playoff for third and fourth place a rather pointless exercise and hard for teams to raise their game after the heartbreak of missing out on a place in a final.
Coach Gareth Ewing responds to that suggestion with: “I know a lot of people who are happier winning a bronze than losing the gold. So, for us, it is vitally important that we turn up and give it everything.”
Ewing rated the 3-2 defeat by India in a pulsating semi-final a “7 out of 10”. He would be saying that because he sees the potential in his squad and he also knows the road that the tight group are on.
Distraught bodies were strewn on the blue astro at the University of Birmingham Hockey Centre at the final hooter with India clinging on for a 3-2 win in the semi-final, after they’d gone 2-0 up at halftime.
India knew they had been in a dogfight, at times physically outmuscled by an energetic group of South Africans who have caught the eye here with their all-action approach. They have been particularly effective with a brand of counter-punching hockey, picking up the ball on the edge of their own circle and getting it to the edge of their opponents’ circle at speed.
South Africa came into the Commonwealth Games ranked 13 in the world, and paired in a group which included Australia (No 1), India (No 5), Pakistan (No 18) and Scotland (No 21).
They opened with a 2-2 draw with Pakistan, the equaliser coming in the last minute of that game. That, quite simply, made South Africa’s task of finishing in the top two even tougher.
They followed with a nervy 5-4 win over Scotland, before impressing neutrals with their fight against Australia, losing 3-0 to the best team on the planet, a squad which is fully funded and for whom playing hockey is their day job.
Then came the game against New Zealand, which basically came down to being a quarter-final, although the draw would have worked in the Kiwis’ favour. Against expectations, South Africa won 4-3 before taking India all the way in their semi-final.
It’s not as if South Africa are inexperienced; in fact, they have plenty throughout their tanks. Tim Drummond, the captain, has gone past 160 Tests, Jethro Eustice is right there, Taine Paton has 140-odd and Keenan Horne will be next to reach 100.
However, they don’t get the opportunity to spend a lot of time together in training camps and they do a lot of their communication and practices in ‘pods’ around the country and the world, overseen by leaders within the group.
Horne is a remarkable individual, one of many in the squad. He has been a central figure in growth of this South African team, which started with Ewing’s appointment in 2019.
Most of the players are amateurs, which creates a raft of problems. Players have taken leave from their universities or work employers to be in Birmingham, some are getting married and have taken leave to be here, with means their honeymoons will be sacrificed.
They’re in the gym at 4:30am every morning, after which it’s off to work or study by day and then practise by night. What is overlooked in a world of amateurs competing against professionals is the recovery time. Amateurs don’t have the time.
This group was at the Olympics last year and then split up to all parts of the world, and cities in South Africa. The team competed in the FIH Pro League and found the going tough, but little do the wider public know that due to circumstances the ‘A team’ was never represented.
Basically, a 40-strong squad was chosen before the Covid-19 lockdowns, to deal with a double qualifying campaign ahead of the Tokyo Olympics and to maintain some sort of continuity because it’s hard keeping amateurs together for long periods.
Shortly before Birmingham, they scrambled to find a base to get together as a group before the Games. They finally secured one at Mill High School in London and many favours were called in.
Ultimately an assistant coach in the England set-up, Kwan Browne, “moved heaven and earth” and organised them a residence, with an astroturf and a gym. The generosity extended to the players only needing to have to pay for their food out of their pockets. Which is a rarity in itself, as amateurs, competing against fully funded professionals at the top table of the sport.
Now that they’re in Birmingham and putting in some eye-catching displays, we’re learning more about their journey.
It started with Ewing’s appointment in 2019 and continued through the Covid months. During this time there were regular Zoom sessions held weekly.
WhatsApp groups were created and what has been instilled is a ‘clean ego’ system. It’s the ultimate team environment, the blueprint for one for all, all for one. An assist is celebrated as much as a goal scored. There are truly no individuals in this team.
They’ve had the Black Lives Matter discussions, they’ve asked questions about upbringing; was your home heated, how did you go to school, what food did you eat at night?
The openness and frankness has allowed them to break down the myth about cowboys not crying. Players suffered loss over Covid, they’ve suffered career setbacks and study stress. There’s been open empathy and soul-searching.
The team talks are calm, deep. On the field, you can’t hear a swear word, a direct opposite of that which exists in the Springbok rugby environment where the F-word is used liberally as part of the accepted lexicon.
We saw that in the brilliant documentaries following the Boks’ World Cup win and their series success against the British & Irish Lions. We even watched — and people laughed — at Mzwandile Stick swearing during a media conference ahead of the All Blacks Test in Mbombela this past weekend. Swearing has become normalised.
Away from the astros, hockey has made great strides to address social issues that other codes might not have.
Horne and Drummond have played huge roles in making this side a band of brothers, drawn from diverse backgrounds, off the field as much as they are on it. They are encouraged to express, at all times, what’s in their hearts. And they’ve grown.
“We lost 10-2 to this Indian side in January,” Drummond said after the 3-2 semi-final defeat. “But this is all about the journey going forward. The time we spend together is so crucial. As I’ve said before, we are not playing for ourselves. We’re playing for something bigger back at home.”
There is a strong Western Province element to the side, as well as a group of players who have played indoor hockey together and have a telepathic understanding of their games.
It was also noticeable how Drummond reacted to a defender’s mistake which led to a goal against India. The captain ran over to the player and gave him encouragement. The next time Drummond received the ball he passed to that player, as if settling him quickly back in his game.
Players have learned to not argue with team officials — even though they have seemed to be on the receiving end of the majority of the tight calls.
Perhaps the umpires sub-consciously favour the higher-ranked team in those 50-50 decisions, on the big stage in front of a crowd? What has been instilled is that clean ego mindset and action.
Don’t waste energy arguing a decision, because it can cost your team. The seconds you spend arguing are seconds wasted without giving your full attention to the ongoing game and your teammates.
And, the journey still has a long way to travel. For now it’s important that the genuine sports lover in South Africa identifies with and gets behind a team that flies a long way under the radar but which is making a difference — and making every ordinary citizen proud to be part of the rainbow nation. DM
Gary Lemke is in Birmingham as chief writer for Team SA.