SA's Austin Smith riding the hockey wave

South Africa men’s hockey team midfield dynamo Austin Smith is riding the crest of a wave.

Fresh from winning the first-ever Hockey India League (HIL) with his franchise team the Ranchi Rhinos, the Western Province playmaker can’t wait to get to Rio de Janeiro to join his green and gold SA teammates for the World League Round 2 event in the Brazilian metropolis.

Austin with the HIL Winners Trophy

“I cherish every moment I play for South Africa and as our men’s programme has been limited in the past year I’m looking forward to getting back into the green and gold and qualifying for the third round [semifinals] of the World League,” Smith said from his home base in The Netherlands Wednesday, where he plays for Den Bosch in the world’s toughest club competition, the Hoofdklasse.

The London 2012 Olympic Games SA captain has led his country 62 times from a national record 109 test match caps but will not be skipper in Rio, the job going to Rhett Halkett of Northern Blues – and he says it is always an uphill battle for the sponsor-less team when it comes to preparation for big tournaments.

“It’s the age-old problem with the team, arriving under-prepared with a new group [of players]. So yes it’s going to be difficult but the senior guys will need to step up and take more responsibility. In the past we have not done enough to fill the gaps with new players coming in.”

With the first match, against Brazil, next Wednesday, there are a few days for the team, who arrive in Rio over the weekend, to settle in. Smith, who has a club game on Sunday, arrives from Europe on Monday morning, which will give him two days with the team before Wednesday’s WLR2 opener.

And what was the HIL like?

“It was an amazing experience to play alongside players who I’ve only ever played against, along with the local Indian guys, who made us feel right at home,” says the 27-year-old, who made his SA debut in 2004 against Canada in Pretoria at age 18. “The hardest part was the travelling, 23 flights over the five weeks. The 14 games were slightly easier to manage as only five foreigners [out of the 10 per team] were allowed on the field at any time so it meant we didn’t all play every game.”

Smith loves HIL. “The concept is brilliant and I can only see it doing wonders for hockey. The semi- finals and finals were on our home ground in Ranchi so naturally our support was immense. The passion of Indian supporters is something you are only used to hearing for the opposition so to be on the ‘right side’ of the cheers and applause was something pretty unique! There were people in the trees and neighbouring rooftops trying to get a glimpse of the game, truly incredible scenes in Ranchi!”

HIL’s future? “Bigger and better. There is almost certainly going to be another franchise next year along with some minor changes but all in all I think it will just become more popular.”

Were the sponsors happy? “Ours certainly were,” says the double Olympian. “Having chatted to most of the players from the other teams it seems the majority of the owners were very happy, yes, and rightly so with the numbers of views the games got from around the world.”

Smith’s many fans will be hoping he can transfer the Midas touch to the SA team in Rio.


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