The world number 12 Investec South Africa women’s hockey team are favourites to beat tournament hosts and world number 13 India in the final of the Olympic Qualifier event in New Delhi’s National Stadium at 4.30 pm (SA time) Saturday.
The gold medal match, to be televised live on SuperSport Blitz with a repeat on SuperSport 6 at 8 pm, is between two attacking teams and plenty of goals are anticipated.
SA might have a slight edge with leading tournament goalscorer Dirkie Chamberlain (7 goals in last 3 matches), fellow forward Sulette Damons (3 goals in last 2 matches) and world record goalscorer Pietie Coetzee (2 goals in last 3 matches) a major threat up front.
Nine goals in their last two games with three against, including a 5-2 win over India in the league phase that was closer than the score might suggest, bears testimony to South Africa’s peaking at just the right time, but the X-factor could play an influential role in an outcome that will see the victors win a ticket to the London 2012 Olympic Games that take place in 5 months’ time.
Captain Marsha Marescia’s South Africans will be aware of the tidal wave of emotion that will be driving this Indian women’s team who are bidding to become the first squad from their country to win a place in the Olympic Games hockey finals since 1980.
While cricket has for some time replaced hockey as the most popular sport in India, hockey is still of huge sentimental value to a population that yearns for the return of the fabulous era when their men’s team dominated the world in winning eight Olympic Games titles.
Not altogether unlike South Africa, where women’s sport has long lived in the shadow of their male compatriots, sport has always taken a back seat to men’s sport in India and the success of their women’s team today will make a massive step in the right direction towards righting that wrong.
Ticket prices hiked to three times their normal value have had a backlash effect on India’s crowd support at the National Stadium but head coach CR Kumar’s team can expect the best turnout of the women’s event in the 8 pm (Indian time) title match while millions of their countrymen are assured of watching proceedings on TV.
The big question is, will the emotion of the occasion and the expectations of a nation have a positive or negative effect on Indian captain and kingpin Asunta Lakra’s team?
South Africa has 10 players with over 100 Test matches behind them and a whole host who have been in the Olympic Games before, many of whom have played in front of big crowds willing the opposition on, so the occasion is not something that should affect them.
The accurate execution of their technical and tactical plans will be head coach Giles Bonnet and his team’s key to the winner’s podium and with it the much-prized ticket to London.
On Friday, the unbeaten Investec South Africa women’s hockey team beat Canada 4-1 – after the scores were level 1-1 at half-time – in the last round of league matches.
Player of the match Dirkie Chamberlain, in irresistible form, netted her second consecutive hat-trick to go top of the tournament goalscorers’ table with seven while fellow forward Sulette Damons made it three successful strikes from two matches. Thea Culley bagged Canada’s lone goal.
World record goalscorer Pietie Coetzee also returned to the starting line-up, after missing the last two matches due to a viral infection.
In the 16th minute a turnover between the SA halfway line and 23-metre area led to Hannah Haughn’s cross from the right being tapped in by Canadian forward Thea Culley (1-0). Seven minutes later Kim Hubach’s square pass across the back to Lenise Marais on the left led to the in-form Shelley Russell’s pace creating enough space for Sulette Damons to equalise (1-1).
While the match had no significance in terms of affecting SA’s certain berth in the final, it was important as far as maintaining the momentum of Wednesday’s 5-2 win over India was concerned.
In ominous signs that the SA side will not overlook, in the most one-sided match of the tournament in which the Italian goal was under constant assault, coach CR Kumar’s skilful India women’s side finally found the back of the net through Ritu Rani 15 minutes from the end for the host nation to win 1-0 and book a place in the Olympic Qualifier Tournament final against the Investec South Africa women’s hockey team.
To be fair, the determined, dogged Italian team who ground out a 1-1 draw with SA in the league phase and only needed draw against India to clinch a place in the gold medal match, are not deserving of place in the title match.
The Italians were no match for the India side, who were their own worst enemies at times as they went in search of a win that now gives them the chance to be the first Indian women’s team to reach the Olympic Games in 32 years.
Investec SA Olympic Qualifier Tournament Fixtures:Sat 18 Feb SA 2-1 Poland Sun 19 Feb SA 2-0 Ukraine Tue 21 Feb SA 1-1 Italy Wed 22 Feb SA 5-2 India Fri Feb 24 SA 4-1 Canada Final: Sat Feb 25 Investec South Africa vs India
Investec South Africa Team:Mariette Rix (Western Province) Kate Woods (Western Province) Shelley Russell (Western Province) Jade Mayne (Western Province) Lauren Penny (Western Province) Kathleen Taylor (Western Province) Tarryn Bright (Western Province) Marsha Marescia (capt) (Southern Gauteng) Lisa Deetlefs (Southern Gauteng) Bernadette Coston (Southern Gauteng) Pietie Coetzee (Southern Gauteng) Sanani Mangisa (Northern Blues) Dirkie Chamberlain (Northern Blues) Nicolene Terblanche (Northern Blues) Kim Hubach (Northern Blues) Lesle-Ann George (Free State) Lenise Marais (KZN Coastal Raiders) Sulette Damons (North West)