Austin's hockey analysis | SASCOC - SASCOC

Austin’s hockey analysis

By Mark Etheridge

South┬áAfrican men’s hockey captain Austin Smith looks both back and forward in developments on the national scene as the crucial Champions Challenge got underway in Randburg on Saturday.

On the eve of one of South Africa’s most important tournaments to date, what’s the mood like in the camp and how does that mood compare to previous big tournaments?
“There’s a great deal of anticipation to get going now. It’s our biggest tournament of the year and we’ve been working towards it since the Commonwealth Games last year in October. I feel like we are on the verge of something very special with this group.”

Has the build-up gone smoothly and without hassles… apart from the weather gods not playing ball?
“The weather has put out our preparation slightly but then again perhaps it’s a good thing that we’ve experienced the worst case scenario. There’s a good chance we’ll play a game in very wet conditions or have the game delayed, both of which we have experienced this past week. A number of the team have been playing in Europe which gives us a good momentum into the week.”

Compared to a  year ago how does this squad look, are we stronger, more experienced, more professional now?
“The side is largely the same as it has been over the past three years which is a definite advantage. Most of us played in the 2009 Champions Challenge in Salta where we finished fifth. Since then we’ve had far more players in the top leagues of Holland, Belgium and England. That experience of playing in those leagues and living abroad has given birth to a new and exciting era in South African hockey were players are far more skilful and professional.”

In the same vein .. are a lot more of our guys playing overseas in Europe now compared to before and can you see the difference in play? It’s obviously hugely beneficial for them to get as much European experience as possible?
“Absolutely, the majority of the top players in the world are based in Europe. The problem in our local leagues is the level of competition and training is just not close enough to international tempo. Playing in Europe gives us the opportunity to play and train at a world class level for 8-10 months of the year, and be paid for it which takes a lot of pressure off financially.”

How many of the squad are playing overseas and are they mainly in Belgium and Holland?
“Fourteen of them are in Belgium/Holland and three in England.”

Speaking of which, how is your Dutch club Den Bosch doing?
“We’ve had a tough first half of the season, we’ve played far better than we did last season but just haven’t got the results we need. To make matters worse we had three points deducted for a registration mistake. The club has taken the matter to court as they believe it was not an error on their part, the final decision is still pending…”

SASCOC have set high standards after we finished 12th in Beijing  what is the general feeling in the camp. Do they agree that this tough route is the way to go?
“Welll I’m not sure absolutely everyone agrees with their decisions but having said that, we’ve overcome some pretty tough situations in the past so our resilience to things like this is sky-high. We set our goal to win this tournament so if we achieve that we will have met SASCOC’S criteria in the mean time. It’s the desire to win and not the so-called threat of SASCOC which drives us.

In the Champions Challenge your pool Games are against Poland, India and Belgium. How do you rate the three and will the fact that Belgium have already qualified for Olympics make them easier to beat?
“This tournament is extremely competitive as winning means an automatic qualification into Champions Trophy (countries ranked 1-8), so everyone wants to win. Ranking points are also at stake and because there aren’t many opportunities to earn these it adds another motivating factor to doing well at this tournament. We haven’t played Poland since 2007 and that was only in a training game so they are a largely unknown entity. India and Belgium we have played more recently and know a lot about them. We know we can beat any side here, it’s just a matter of producing the performance we know we are capable of.”

How is your own form at the moment, after your recent injury and long term, how long are you still looking at playing at international level?
“It was incredibly frustrating watching the Olympic Qualifier in Zimbabwe with a broken hand but since then it’s healed well and I’m back to top form. I’ve worked hard in Holland a couple of areas which I hope will help me make the next step up to the top echelon of players in the world. I still have a lot of passion for playing or my country and I don’t see that going away any time soon, so as long as I’m at the top of my game I’ll be right here!”

Money is always an issue for men’s hockey, without a sponsor. Are we any closer to getting getting a sponsor because it’s obviously damned difficult to compete against the top-dogs who have proper funding year-round?
“It is difficult with a major sponsor but we have had success on a smaller financial level as well as a number of product sponsors like 100 Plus, Havaianas, YogiSip, Red Bull and Southern Sun to name a few. I still feel like we are on the brink of a sponsor realising the potential there is in men’s hockey in South Africa. Until that happens we are going to do everything to control our own destiny, if that means paying for some camps ourselves we will do it as we have done in the past.”

Finally should we get through to the Olympics this team should do better than Beijing surely? Roughly how many of the 2008 squad would be around next year?
“There are only four players in the Champions Challenge team who attended the Beijing Olympics which I don’t necessarily think is a bad thing. Our performance at Beijing was well below par and we needed a serious revamp. We’ve learnt a lot since then and I truly believe this group of players is capable of a far better result in London next year, I hope we get the chance to prove it!”