SA wheelchair basketball team avoid big guns

The South African wheelchair basketball team have avoided the big guns in the pool stages of the Beijing Paralympics.

South Africa have been drawn in Pool A with world number-one side Canada, but will not have to contend with Pool B powerhouses the United States, Australia and Britain.

While Canada are world champions and will prove monumental opponents, the South Africans should be encouraged by not having to play the US, who are second in the world, third-ranked side Australia and world number four Britain in the preliminary stages.

“I’m pretty satisfied with the draw,” said South Africa coach Viv Sierra. “When I first looked at the draw I was concerned that we had been drawn with Canada, but then I took a closer look at it and I definitely think we can beat the other sides in the pool.”

South Africa and Canada are joined in Pool A by Germany, Sweden, Japan and Iran. Hosts China, Brazil and Israel complete Pool B.

This week, the South Africans enter the next phase of their preparation for Beijing with a five-day camp at the High Performance Centre in Pretoria and the Mandeville Centre in Johannesburg.

“The vibe among the squad is unbelievable,” said Sierra. “You won’t see a more motivated national squad in the country. The guys are all ready to work as hard as possible to get to Beijing.”

The squad for the Paralympics will be announced in June and this week’s camp will give Sierra and his assistant, Kelebone Mosuoe, another opportunity to assess available talent.

“We will be without a few of our star players, but some of the fringe guys will get their opportunity to shine. It is so unfortunate that some of the guys that will be at the camp may miss out on the Paralympics.”

The camp will be South Africa’s fourth in the space of five months. “In November we dealt with the offensive aspects of the game. Then in December we had a camp on the defensive elements and in January we worked on our basics,” Sierra explained.

The South Africa team have been able to step up their preparation for the Games thanks to support from sponsor Sasol. “We are very grateful to Sasol for making funds available for camps like these,” said Charles Saunders, director of Wheelchair Basketball South Africa.

This week’s camp will be followed by a trip to Belgium for a four-nations tournament with the hosts, France and Switzerland. Then the team fly to Italy for more Paralympic preparation matches against two of that country’s top club teams and an invitational side.

In July, the squad will travel to Amsterdam to play The Netherlands, and they will complete their preparations with Tests against Turkey on home soil in August.

They will leave for the Paralympics at the beginning of September and arrive in Beijing eight days before the tournament starts.

Sierra is quietly confident of success in China. “I won’t guarantee a medal, but I do think we have a very good chance of making it into the semifinals,” he said.

“Once you make it into the last four, anything is possible, and I think the guys believe in themselves and have set realistic goals of winning a medal in Beijing. With a number of training camps and a tours to Europe leading up to the Paralympics, our side will be extremely well prepared for the showpiece in September.”—Sapa

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