South African sports teams thrive on underdog status and the men’s hockey team is no different. As the lowest ranked team in the Olympics this month, they will face a massive challenge in every game they start.
In their opening game against Australia they were given a harsh introduction to the task that lies ahead, going down 6-0 at the hands of world’s top ranked team, but with a groundswell of support back home, they will be keen to bounce back in London.
iafrica.com’s Sports Editor Rob Peters spoke to defender Andrew Cronje earlier this week about the team’s chances in London.
Rob Peters (RP): The success of the team in qualifying for the Games has created a groundswell of support in SA – the team must be feeling a lot of love at the moment?
Andrew Cronje (AC): Since qualifying in Japan the support has been more than incredible! The team really appreciates it all and we have further motivation to keep taking strides forward to make people proud to support us!
RP: Exposure and support – from the greater South Africa at least – has always been an issue for hockey in this country, do you feel the success this year has helped grow both?
AC: There has certainly been an improvement this year and we are very aware of the fact that the best way to get exposure and grow our support base is to get results. So yes, I totally agree with your statement. In saying that, we have such an opportunity now at the Games the push for a top finish in a World competition and this will really make people take notice of our sport and the team.
RP: The team has struggled to get the kind of consistent financial support needed to compete with the bigger nations, have you seen any positive movement on this front?
AC: As players we are not too aware of what is taking place behind the scenes on the financial side of things. Our focus is to get results and that will play a big part in securing the funds the team needs to train, play matches and just spend more time together more often.
RP: You have recently notched up your ton in international appearances, making you very much one of the leaders in the team – is that a role you enjoy?
AC: Actually the matches in Spain were unofficial so I will be getting my 100th cap against Australia which is our first Olympic match. I cannot wait for the match!
I do enjoy the responsibility that comes with being one of the senior players within our group and I hope I can add value to individuals and the team whilst performing at a consistently high level personally on and off the field.
RP: As a defender, are you ‘the enforcer’ of the team?
AC: Ha! Ha! Yes, one of the roles I do play is a type of enforcer role. Naturally I get ‘stuck in’ when I play but the physicality is very much a part of hockey. In fact our whole team doesn’t stand back for anyone, but we always make sure we try not over step the mark.
RP: Since making your debut in 2004, what are the highlights that stand out for you?
AC: My debut against Canada in Feb 2004 will always be a special match, along with the several matches in which I captained the team in 2007.
Although we didn’t perform well in Beijing, playing matches at the Olympics is amazing.
The qualifying matches for the 2006 World Cup and 2008 Olympics were also great to win, but the big one is our victory in Japan to qualify for this London Olympics! Winning that match with this team is my number one highlight.
RP: On the whole, the Beijing Olympics were disappointing for SA. How are you – and the team in general – feeling ahead of the London Games?
AC: The vibe within this team is very different from the Beijing group. Myself, and the team are feeling a lot more comfortable going into this tournament. We have had decent preparation over the last four months and even though we know all our matches will be tough, we have a genuine belief that we will perform in London.
RP: How does the current hockey team compare to the side that went to Beijing?
AC: Both of the teams have quality players, but the biggest difference is that this side has 11 guys that are playing in overseas leagues. This means we have more members that are playing at a near international level week in and week out for most of the year which obviously enables more consistent performances. The approach on all fronts has also been a lot more professional this time around, so as I mentioned earlier, we all feel a lot more comfortable now.
RP: SA goes into the Games very much as underdogs – starting with a match against world number one Australia – but then that is something SA teams tend to thrive on isn’t it?
AC: The reality is we come into the Olympics as the lowest ranked team, so we are very much the underdogs. In saying that, we know we have the ability to put in the performances which will get us results we want. Yes the Aussies will be tough but at this level all our matches will be tough so we are taking it one game at a time and we will be giving it our all.
RP: Apart from Australia, who are your biggest threats in the group stage?
AC: All the matches will be tough, but Aus, Great Britain and Spain are the top ranked teams in our pool.
RP: How do you see London as a host city differing from Beijing? Culturally they will obviously be very different. Do you think it will be easier to adapt in London?
AC: The experience outside the village is very different as one would expect, but inside the village things are very similar. I’m sure everyone will find it a lot easier to communicate and find their way around London - that proved to be tricky in Beijing! Inside the village, all our needs are catered for and I must say we are very well looked after as athletes. All in all, this Olympic experience so far has been super special and I am privileged to be doing this for a second time.