It wasn’t a near-perfect situation to be in for the South African men’s hockey team when they headed into the inaugural FIH Nations Cup in their backyard at Potchefstroom- the country’s long-standing coach Garreth Ewing had stepped down after the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup campaign and there were reservations about how the national side would perform under newly-appointed interim coach Cheslyn Gie.
Gie, who is the hockey manager for Madibaz Sport, was entrusted with the ‘big responsiiblity’ of guiding the team in the event of the ‘unexpected exit’ of Garreth Ewing days before the FIH Nations Cup. There were high expectations from Gie because Garreth Ewing has done exceedingly well since taking charge after the conclusion of the 2018 World Cup. And the big man did not disappoint one bit, guiding the national team to a FIH Nations Cup triumph and a place in the 2023-24 FIH Pro League.
The South African men’s hockey side not only had a new coach but also a first-time captain in Dayaan Cassiem – the developments in the run-up to the FIH Nations Cup did not seem to affect the preparations of the green-and-gold brigade, who kicked off their campaign with a resounding 6-2 win and 2-1 wins over Pakistan and France. Dayaan Cassiem showed maturity beyond his age (he is just 22) and led by example, not only getting the best out of his team but also scored crucials goals during the tournament, including a brace in the final.
Of course, the captain received superb forwardline support from the likes of Tevin Kok, Keenan Horne, Mustaphaa Cassiem (his younger brother), and Ryan Julius – Tevin Kok was clearly the find of the tournament for South Africa invariably finding the target whenever the team needed it the most – he scored in the semifinal and the final as well. The South African deep defence were well served by their most capped player Jethro Eustice, Beauchamp Connor and Daniel Bell – they ensured their goalkeeper Hendrik Kriek was provided adequation cushion from opponents’ forays consistently.
South Africa also showed that they lesson their lessons quickly – they had lost by a solitary goal to Ireland in the pool stage and found the going tough against the Green Machine but they did the desired course correction in the final against the same opponents – they ensured it was not going to be a down-to-the-wire contest as they struck at regular intervals to lap up a 3-1 lead early in the second half – however, Ireland kept coming hard at them scoring twice to even things up before Mustaphaa Cassiem fired the match-winner in the 49th minute. The hosts defended theslender goal lead in the last eleven minutes with aplomb.
The FIH Nations Cup glory is indeed a big deal for South Africa simply because the national team achieved it sans several experienced players such as the defender duo of Timmothy Drummond, and potent drag-flicker Matthew Guise-Brown, midfielder duo of Taine Paton and Nicholas Spooner and forward Nqobile Ntuli. Interestingly, Cheslyn Gie’s appointment as interim coach is only up to the 2023 World Cup and the South African Hockey Association is expected to name a full-time after the showpiece event. But the way the national team under interim coach Gie won the FIH Nations Cup could ensure an extended tenure for him.
South Africa have given enough indications that they are making rapid improvements over the last few years and can no more be termed as pushovers. At the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, South Africa shocked Germany 4-3 and nearly did the same against the Netherlands when they took a 3-0 first half lead only to lose the plot and the game 3-5 – at the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games, the African powerhouse surprised New Zealand 4-3 and entered the semifinals of the Commonwealth Games in 20 years.