South African hockey hedges its bets

South Africa’s women’s hockey team will not win a medal at the ­upcoming Olympic Games in London. That is according to the world rankings and the captain of the team itself.

But do not be too hard on Marsha Marescia. If you read between the lines, it is hard to overlook that the national women’s hockey team has something going for it and could spring a surprise or two in London over the coming months.

Their results speak for themselves. A win over Great Britain and a draw with the Netherlands – both Olympic-medal contenders, according to Marescia – at the recent London Cup suggest they cannot be too far off.

Not so, said the 29-year-old midfielder, who is on the verge of her third Olympic campaign.

“We had good results against the Netherlands and Great Britain, but we have to be realistic about where we are in our programme. The tournaments that we played were preparation tournaments and by no means a peaking moment for any of those teams.

“They have all the experience in playing for medals at the Olympic Games and World Cup events, whereas we do not,” said Marescia.

This talk of a “programme” is central to where the South African team is at the moment, with Marescia pointing out that the squad embarked on its path, from a selection, strategic and overall approach point of view, only in May 2010 when Giles Bonnet took over as the national coach.

At the time, the national women’s team had been in limbo for six months. Bonnet came in and put together a 26-month preparation programme for London 2012 and a three-year programme for the national under-21 squad ahead of the Junior World Cup in 2013.

Twenty-six months may seem like a long time for those of us with short attention spans. But in the world of professional sport, or in this case, professional team hockey, ­apparently it is not.

“A lot of Olympic squads started their programmes three-and-a-half years ago,” said Marescia, “at least a year before the 2010 World Cup. We started our programme about three months before the World Cup.”

If that is the case, has the London Olympics come a little too soon for a South African women’s hockey team that has clearly made strides, but perhaps has not completed a full cycle and realised its potential?

World ranking
“I think so,” said Marescia. “If we can improve our world ranking [12th], which is our goal, and play for a top-eight position at the Olympics, then I think we will reap the benefits of it in the next two years.

“If you look at the programme that we have been on, we have had to play catch-up with the top teams and I think we have done an exceptional job of it. But we have always been behind them.”

What Bonnet has done is bring a noticeable professionalism to the national squad and tackle the areas of technical skills, physical conditioning, decision-making and on-field responsibility, specialist skills, set pieces and structures.

In addition, financial investment by team sponsor Investec has allowed him to bring in a host of specialist coaches in the form of Andrew Meredith (striking), Adel Fuentes (drag flicking) and Martijn Driver (goalkeeping), among others.

There is no doubt that Bonnet’s squad has reaped the benefits. In December 2010 it beat World Cup winner Argentina and there have  also been victories over China, Azerbaijan and Belgium. The victory over China was particularly pleasing, because the Chinese were ranked fourth in the world at the time and are now in fifth place.

Horribly wrong
The focus of 2011 was to secure Olympic qualification by nailing down a place in the final of the Champions Challenge in Ireland. But things went horribly wrong for team South Africa when a change in format resulted in them missing out despite finishing top of their pool.

“Lo and behold, the one year they change the structure it backfires on us,” said a now philosophical Marescia.

Fortunately, the women’s hockey team was afforded the opportunity to play in the International Hockey Federation’s Olympic qualifier in India this year, but they had to win it to satisfy the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee’s selection criteria.

They duly beat hosts India 3-1 in the final, but according to Marescia, “the pressure was incredible”.

Now to the games in London and the chance to go a few places better than the ninth achieved by the class of 2004 in Athens and the 11th place earned four years later in Beijing.

“We are not medal prospects,” said Marescia. “We are ranked 12th in the world and are the lowest-ranked team in our pool. We know that we’ve closed the gap between us and the top teams, but they are still more experienced in playing for top-four positions. So, I wouldn’t rank us a medal hopeful, but our goal is to play for eighth position.”

Cautious optimism
Nevertheless, there have been enough good results – albeit sporadic – over the past two years to suggest that Bonnet’s squad may have a bit more in them.

Cautious optimism appears the party line, though, and Marescia is under no illusions about who the favourites for medals are.

“The Netherlands are number one in the world and going for gold,’ she said. “Thereafter, Argentina, Germany and Great Britain are definitely medal hopefuls.”

At various stages in the past two years South Africa have pushed each of those big names. And although Marescia refuses to admit that they stand a chance of upsetting the form book, she has allowed herself to dream the ultimate dream, courtesy of her first Olympic memory as a wide-eyed nine-year-old schoolgirl in Durban.

“I watched Elana Meyer winning a silver medal in Barcelona in 1992,” she said. “I remember that clearly and it was fantastic for South Africa, considering the particular time of our country’s history. It also proved that my theory that you need experience to win a medal at the Olympic Games isn’t always right.”

So, some sort of concession at last. Is it really that much of a pipe dream to suggest that Marescia and company could sneak up on the outside and nick a medal in London?

“Who knows?” said Marescia. “Elana proved that anything is possible.”

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