A big hit for students and SA

Clint Panther celebrates scoring the winning goal against Maties in the Varsity Sports final. (Saspa)

Clint Panther celebrates scoring the winning goal against Maties in the Varsity Sports final. (Saspa)

It’s a chilly night at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) astro in Melville, but the stands are full and the on-field drama is keeping everyone warm. The final of the Varsity Sports hockey tournament has ended in a 2-2 draw and the match will be settled by a penalty shoot-out. The recently amended tie-breaker gives the shooter eight seconds to find a way to slot the ball past the armour-clad goalkeeper.

The first two players from both UJ and Maties (Stellenbosch) have succumbed to nerves, hitting the ball wide or into the keeper. Cometh the hour, cometh the man and up steps Clinton Panther, a 23-year-old finance student in the third year of a BCom.

Panther also happens to have 69 international caps, and 24 hours later he will be on a plane to Holland to represent South Africa at next month’s hockey World Cup.

Panther dribbles the ball from the 23m line into the “D” and then he turns his back on the keeper. He feints right, then moves left at pace, spins through 90° and slams the ball low into the net. It proves to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Maties, 2-0 up after 21 minutes in real time, have been hauled in and ultimately passed by in a moment of nerveless brilliance.

Panther is small and wiry, with white-blond hair and piercing eyes. He has a reputation for being a hothead on the field, but he smiles easily off it and tells me afterwards: “We had a team talk with our coach this afternoon and he asked us to write down which position you want to go in and which you don’t. I said the only position I don’t want to go in is third. And he put me in third!”

The coach of the national side is not amused. There was a pre-tournament agreement that the national squad players who are at university would not participate in the final round of Varsity Cup matches. But when the moment came, Gareth Ewing could not bring himself to leave out his talisman. And it’s almost impossible to sanction a player in a game that survives on a shoestring budget and a hefty dose of goodwill.

No time to study
Panther has put his academic life on hold to represent South Africa this year. He says: “When I finish at the World Cup I’m going to have to write the semester tests I missed. That will be a month later than the rest of the students, but the university has managed to sort that out and I’m very grateful. I’d like to continue with investment honours next year, but to do that I have to average over 65% and that’s going to be hard, because I’ve had no time to study this year.”

He will also have to dig into his own pocket, as usual, when in Holland. The South African Hockey Association covers the players’ costs for travel and accommodation, but there is no budget for a per diem. Compare that with an average Springbok pulling down R3-million a year, or a Protea on around R800 000. You really have to want to play hockey for your country to justify the expense.

Panther’s father, Sydney, was at UJ to watch his two sons (25-year-old Brandon has also played for South Africa). He has spent large amounts of his adult life standing next to hockey fields, despite the fact that he hardly played the game himself. “I played provincial tennis and water polo, and I play golf, but I wasn’t a hockey player,” he said.

According to Sydney, the hockey fraternity spotted Panther’s potential and arranged for him to move from St Benedict’s in Johannesburg to Michaelhouse in the KZN Midlands. “Two people sponsored him to go to Michaelhouse. I don’t know who those people are – Clint does – but I am most grateful. My wife and I could never have afforded to send him there without that help.”

Panther was spotted at an interprovincial tournament while still at school. Gregg Clark was the coach of the national side at that stage and he said: “He was fearless in the midfield and making passes that other players weren’t even seeing. He was able to do that with a high degree of technical proficiency, so we brought him straight into the national setup.”

Clark is now the coach of the Ranchi Rhinos in the Hockey India League (HIL). The HIL is modelled on the IPL, the fantastically successful cricket showcase. He explains: “The player auction and the salary cap are the same as the IPL, but everything is on a much smaller scale. The smallest reserve price, for instance, is $5 000 and the highest is $25 000.”

South African players Justin Reid-Ross and Austin Smith play for Clark’s Ranchi Rhinos, and Lloyd Norris-Jones and Tim Drummond play for the Delhi Wave Riders. Reid-Ross, the AB de Villiers of South African hockey, was auctioned for just over $40 000 last year and, together with a lucrative sponsorship deal, he might make R1-million from the game this year. For most of the rest of the World Cup squad it is scrimp, save and seize the day.

Clint Panther will not get rich from playing international hockey and there may come a time when he resents that fact. But right now he is living the dream and there are a bunch of students at UJ who are hoping that his grades allow him to stay in tertiary education long enough for them to be able to say that they played alongside a legend.

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