With no major international competitions scheduled this season, national men’s hockey coach Fabian Gregory is pleased with the early progress in a rebuilding phase for the squad.
The SA team opened their 2016 campaign with a 2-1 loss to Canada in a friendly contest in Cape Town, and went on to draw 3-3 against Ireland in their first official Test of the season last week.
Two days later, they fought back from a goal down, scoring twice in the last seven minutes to beat Spain 2-1, and in their final contest of the series on Sunday they beat Canada 2-0 in another unofficial contest.
All three teams they faced were ranked higher than the South Africans, who remained 15th in the global list.
“I’m very happy with the way things panned out,” Gregory said on Monday.
“We had the challenge of infusing 10 Under-21 players into the senior group, and we had former players coming back, like Owen Mvimbi.
“We didn’t want to put too much pressure on the junior players, so they were basically given a free series to gain some experience and show their potential at senior level.
“We put more pressure on the experienced players to take on a mentorship role with the younger guys and improve their own performance levels.”
While he admitted the senior members of the squad had been stunned by the demands placed on them, with their international futures on the line if they did not step up, Gregory was delighted with their response.
With the national side set to miss this year’s Olympics, after their qualification via the African Championships was denied by the SA Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc), Gregory and his management team wanted to start working with a core squad ahead of the 2018 World Cup in Bhubaneswar, India.
“The senior guys did really well, and they proved they still had the desire to continue improving,” he said.
Among those who stood out, according to the coach, were the nation’s No 2 goalkeeper Gowan Jones, defender Dylan Swanepoel, striker Lloyd Norris-Jones and defender Rhett Halkett, who replaced regular skipper Austin Smith.
Due to Smith’s battles with injuries and club commitments with his Dutch club Den Bosch, Gregory was pleased with Halkett’s efforts as the skipper.
“We are trying to expand our pool of captains to cover ourselves for all circumstances, and Rhett really stepped up to the plate.
“The leadership skills he showed were impressive.”
Of the junior players who turned out in the Cape Town series, all of whom received game time, Gregory felt midfielder Ryan Julius had been the star performer.
“He really did well and he’s a great prospect for the future.
“We now know he’s ready to grab an opportunity when we give it to him.”
Gregory confirmed the squad would be reinforced for their next assignment, a three-Test series against Olympic champions Germany in Cape Town next month.
“I’m really pleased with what we’ve achieved in such a short period of time (this season) but that series will definitely be a bigger challenge for us.
“We’ll be bringing more senior players back, and they too will be given a chance to prove they still have the hunger to improve and continue their international careers.”
Gregory was full of praise for all members of the squad, who continued to pay their own way with no support from a corporate sponsor.
“The players attended this Cape Town series at their own cost,” he said.
“The level of sacrifice they make to represent their country is amazing, and I’m proud to be involved with this team.”