South Africa’s decision to take their youngsters to the UK rather than rely on experience paid dividends as their teams won three out of the four test matches. The UK will be disappointed that they did not do better on their home soil, and probably in the case of the ladies they should have done, but little can be taken away from a South African side which featured just 3 players over 20 years of age and one player making their international debut at the age of 15.
The South Africans got off to the perfect start by winning both the ladies and men’s test matches on the first day of series, Saturday the 18th of July, at Ashfields Polocrosse Club in Essex. Both matches were incredibly close with the South Africa ladies winning 19-17 and the men winning 22-20. In both matches the South Africans got into an early lead and though the UK fought back well, and in the case of the men briefly lead, the South Africans found an extra gear right at the end to close out the match.
The next day started well for the UK with the ladies having their revenge and winning by 22 goals to 18. The UK ladies all looked on their top form, something they struggled to find the day before, and got off to a great start. The South Africans came back at them and crept into a 12-11 lead in the fifth but the UK ladies would not be defeated a second time and pulled away to victory.
The South African ladies played very well on both days but the UK will probably feel that if they had played their best in both tests they could have won the series. On the first day, however, they were hurt by the speed of the South Africans, with the number 1’s Dawnay Jacobs and Nicky Crook looking on very good form. Nicky Crook, in particular, had an excellent first test as she flashed past Sophie Lodder to score a number of goals, though Sophie was on a fairly tricky horse which only seemed to really settle towards the end of each match.
The South African men also punished the UK with their speed and direct style of play. Possession was fairly even throughout the matches, hence the close scores, but the difference was in how quickly the South Africans move with and without the ball. When the South Africans won the ball they headed straight for the goal, not giving the UK a chance to properly defend against them in midfield. Once they were in the area they didn’t waste time trying to work the area, if they couldn’t find a quick way past the number three then they would throw a big overarm over the top of the number 3 (showing exactly why Australians hate overarms throws). When the UK got the ball they were far slower in midfield, working their way to the area more steadily and this gave the South Africans time to push pressure on in midfield and force mistakes. In the area the UK number 1’s took their time and the South African number 3’s did a good job keeping them at bay. The UK always scored their chances but once South Africa were ahead the UK needed quick goals to pull it back and they could not always achieve that.
However, the UK had little choice but to play the way they played; it is the way they play polocrosse and it would be unwise for them to try and match the South Africans at pace. The South African men showed exactly why people say the African countries have the best stick and balls skills in the world, throwing some huge passes and even when they weren’t totally accurate their players were still able to lean off their horses and pull them in. The UK also lost slightly too much ball out of the line up, with Jannie Steenkamp and Andrew Heynes doing a particularly good job out the back.
South Africa’s victory here sends a chilling warning to the rest of the polocrosse world as it was such a young squad. The Van Wyk brothers were a major thorn in the UK’s side at the age of just 19 and Graham Maclarty, who is just 15, played particularly well in the second test, despite receiving some rough treatment from the UK at times. South Africa have shown that they have young talent in abundance while the UK were forced to look to their older players for inspiration at times like these, players such as Jason Webb who deservedly won the UK Most Valuable Male Player award.
It wasn’t all about the South African youngsters though, there were also positives from the UK’s young players. Jono Keen looked good at number 3 for the men, winning quite a lot of ball out the line up and doing all he could against Attie Van Wyk. For the ladies Lucy Shell looked good when she came in at number 2 and Annie Waterer and Charlotte Pykett both looked good at number 1, particularly in the second test match.
The polocrosse over the weekend was of the highest standard and the weather was pretty good, with only a few showers of rain on the Sunday. However, there was a nasty cloud over the whole occasion due to some of the umpiring and also due to the South African chairman and coach storming on to the pitch and holding up play during the first ladies test.
The UK were very unhappy with some of the umpiring of Patrick O’Sullivan, the South African umpire, and at points some of his decision did seem strange. Twice he penalised the UK ladies very harshly for not taking free throws from exactly the spot he had marked, which on one occasion seemed to be directly under his own horse’s hooves. Also, on another occasion, he changed his mind about a UK goal. He personally awarded the UK a free throw at goal, which Guy Robertson duely converted, and signalled a goal only to change his mind as the South African goal judge insisted that Guy had put his horse foot in the D as he threw the goal. The same goal judge also insisted later on that a goal that Jason Webb had thrown had gone wide but on this occasion he was over-ruled as the he was meant to be watching the D and not the posts.
Whether these decisions would have really changed the course of the match is debatable but throughout all the matches Patrick O’Sullivan and his fellow umpire Simon Shearing argued about various decisions and went to the match referee, the Australian Stuart Neal, on several occasions to get a ruling. All of this did not look good and it left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. In future the world of polocrosse might well have to consider whether it wishes to use umpires from the countries actually playing or whether it wants to find umpires from other polocrosse nations to umpire test matches.
The worst moment of the weekend was reserved for the first test match when the South Africans felt it was necessary to march on to the pitch to protest against an umpire’s decision. One of the South African’s horses had lost a shoe and was getting reshod between chukkas. It was not ready to start the next chukka and under international rules they should have sent on their reserve player and a reserve horse. They clearly did not want to do this and so instead their players spent ages getting to the pitch.
With the UK players waiting on the tee the umpires prepared to throw in the ball as the South Africans had had the necessary two minutes between chukkas to get ready. It was at this point the South Africans marched on to the pitch and protested. An arguement ensured with their UK counterparts going out to meet them, and also some random New Zealanders who felt it was necessary to be involved. After some debate they all left the pitch and two South Africa players arrived for the first line up. Just after the ball was thrown it the final player rushed onto the pitch, complete with all four horse shoes.
Regardless of who was wrong or right, it again looked unseemly and apparently some of the insults that were traded were far from pleasant. Again, possibly independent umpires would help avoid situations like this or possibly the International Polocrosse Council will need to show some strong leadership on how situations like this should be avoided in the future. Ashfields Polocrosse Club in particular had done a great deal of work to make these test matches a huge event for the UK and bring in a big crowd to watch the test matches and for them to be marred by arguements and debatable decisions is a great shame, as it distracts from the fantanstic standard of play that was seen on both days and the fantastic achievement of the young South African side.
Best UK Male Player – Jason Webb
Best South African Male Player – Nico Van Wyk
Best UK Lady Player – Sophie Lodder
Best South African Lady Player – Celicia Jacobs