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Shelley Jones © Gallo Images

Last-gasp SA progress to quarters

SA’s Shelley Jones summed it up perfectly when she described it as “the long way round”. South Africa’s women’s hockey team did indeed do it the hard way, but they have booked their place in the quarterfinals of the Hockey World League.

That’s after they beat the USA 3-2 in their must-win final group game at the Wits Astro in Johannesburg on Sunday.

After their shock loss to Chile during the week, the pressure was on and the SA side showed they were up to the task.

“When our backs are against the wall we always seem to produce a fighting performance. It feels incredible – especially after the devastation of the Chile game,” said a beaming Jones afterwards.

“I keep telling people ‘we’ll meet you there’ (in the playoffs) but we always take the long way round,” she added.

The South Africans showed no signs of nervousness as they took to the field against a team ranked seven places above them in the world. They had clearly taken an aggressive approach and within the first few minutes had already created several opportunities to score.

The SA side were in fact on the attack when they lost the ball and the USA pounced and moved it up to Melissa Gonzalez who slotted it in from the edge of the circle for a 1-0 lead.

It took another 12 minutes for SA to equalise. Heading towards the end of the half, Shelley Jones fed the ball through to Sulette Damons, who then passed it to Jade Mayne to slot it past the US keeper for the equaliser.

Some poor marking from the South Africans in the circle led to the USA once again taking the lead in the third quarter though. This time it was Jill Witmer who did the honours.

But five minutes later SA pulled one back with an excellent deflection from Candice Manuel off a Bernie Coston pass beating the keeper for 2-2.

Manuel was back in action just a matter of minutes later and smashed in another one for the 3-2 lead with nine minutes left to hold on for the victory. The South Africans did well to keep their composure under some intense pressure and there was wild celebration when the final hooter sounded, signalling the home team’s passage through to the quarterfinals.

“It was a really important game – a must-win game and it’s these moments that we sportswomen live for and those BMT moments that we have to capitalise on,” said Manuel afterwards. “Today was one of those that we had to win and we gave it our all.

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“We had to put everything into this match. We put in the extra hours, we studied USA, we worked on ourselves, finding our strong points and our weaknesses as well and just putting in that extra effort because we knew this was a must-win. That’s when SA really shines – when we are in these big moments. We really pull it out.”

“It’s a phenomenal feeling. I still can’t let it go. My head is everywhere at the moment and we’ll hopefully bring this energy and vibe into the next match.”

SA coach Sheldon Rostron said a solid game plan had given the side confidence going into the match. “Obviously knowing this was a must-win got the hearts firing and the passion going but from the start I think the energy was high coming into this match. So well done to the girls,” he said.

Speaking about Manuel’s two-goal performance, he added: “I think she has a phenomenal ability to score goals. We brought her in much better today in terms of movement and the midfield servicing her and I think that’s why she was able to do that for us today.”

Meanwhile, in other matches on Sunday, Germany beat Japan 3-0 to finish second in Pool A, England defeated Ireland 3-2 to top that pool and Argentina beat India 3-0 to top Pool B.

Because of that result, South Africa finished above India (with whom they drew earlier in the tournament) in Pool B.

As a result, South Africa will face Germany in Tuesday’s quarterfinals. England will play India, USA will take on Japan and Argentina will face Ireland.

The SA men are back in action on Monday and will have been boosted by their female counterparts’ performance as they face a massive task of their own in having to beat Olympic silver medallists Belgium to reach the quarterfinals.


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