There’s an intriguing weekend of action ahead as the Premier Hockey League heads into the final round of games before the playoffs. And one man who will be watching the log very carefully will be coach of the SA men’s under-21 side, playing as the Old Mutual iWYZE Golden Gate Gladiators, Garreth Ewing.
His side pulled off the most dramatic comeback of the tournament so far last Sunday when they came back from 0-3 down to beat the Garden Route Gazelles 6-3. The Gladiators are currently fourth on the log, and as it stands, that would mean a semifinal spot, but with only one game to play this coming weekend, anything could happen.
“I think that a lot is going to happen before the semifinalists are decided,” reckoned Ewing. “We only have one game to play this weekend, which might count against us. All the results will have an impact on the table for all the teams. It’s going to change game by game and possibly one or two results might work in our favour. Who knows what pressure will do?”
The Gladiators face the tough task of taking on the defending champions, the Crossroads Maropeng Cavemen, in their final game, but confidence is high after last weekend’s performance. “Our team focus won’t change, beyond improving on last weekend’s performances and trusting in our process against a very strong Cavemen team,” explained the coach.
“I think we can definitely beat them, but I’m extremely respectful of their experience and balance. It will be a tough game but a very good opportunity for the young Gladiators to continue to learn about playing in pressure situations.”
Speaking about the Cavemen, who are currently second on the log after a rained-out match went straight to a shootout, which they lost to the Gazelles, Ewing added: “It was no surprise to me when they won the tournament last year. They have key players right up the middle of the field and they have a strong offensive and defensive PC. I think they have a handle on their defensive game which will make them hard to break down.”
The young Gladiators will surely believe that anything is possible after last Sunday though. Describing what changed in his team to be able to turn around the deficit, Ewing explained: “3-0 wasn’t a comfortable place for us. We shared a few stern words at half-time, but we focused on playing to the shape we had agreed upon before the game, and making sure that we stopped leaking goals due to errors.
“The biggest shift the players made was committing to passing the ball instead of becoming individuals when under pressure. This really raised our tempo and then things started to flow. It was also, I think, an indication of the team’s character and the pride they have in their performance that they found an extra gear. I was thrilled at the way they responded and they played some beautiful hockey at times.
“Our whole process, with there being a longer-term goal of being successful at the Junior World Cup in 2019, has been about performing and growing rather than getting results. In terms of team growth there is a lot to feel encouraged about, but we need to ask how we got ourselves to 3-0 down in the first place.
“The key for us is to now believe that we can compete against older players with more experience, and to make sure we start games better. The team is very upbeat after the game, however, and it will help our confidence a great deal going into the last weekend.”
Saturday, 9 December
8am: ProGrip Drakensberg Dragons v Mapungubwe Mambas
10am: Private Property St Lucia Lakers v TopT Madikwe Rangers
12pm: Crossroads Maropeng Cavemen v Old Mutual iWYZE Golden Gate Gladiators
2pm: Wineland Wings v Orange River Rafters
4pm: Kilimanjaro Addo Elephants v Garden Route Gazelles
Sunday, 10 December
8am: Private Property St Lucia Lakers v Wineland Wings
10am: Crossroads Maropeng Cavemen v Mapungubwe Mambas
12pm: Orange River Rafters v Tivoli Blyde River Bunters
2pm: ProGrip Drakensberg Dragons v Garden Route Gazelles
4pm: Old Mutual iWYZE Namaqualand Daisies v TopT Madikwe Rangers