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Hockey’s last chance

A mere 70 minutes separates the South African men’s hockey team from earning a place at the London 2012 Olympic Games.

SA meet eight-time Olympic Games gold medallists India in the 4pm Champions Challenge semi-final at Randburg Hockey Stadium Saturday (live on SuperSport) and are just one win away from fulfilling the  requirements of Olympic sports governing body SASCOC.

SA’s Olympic governing body, not satisfied that winning the Africa Olympic Qualifier tournament was sufficient proof of the team’s ability to compete for a medal in London, set a further hurdle for the team. Reach the final of Champs Challenge and your ticket to London is assured.

Failing that, SA have one last chance for London if they win the final Olympic Qualifier tournament in Japan in April/May but that’s an onerous task indeed.

If last Sunday’s epic 11-goal Pool A thriller between India and SA is anything to go by, this semi-final tussle for a berth in Sunday’s 4.30 pm final is set to be another heart-stopping affair.

SA lost that one 7-4 after the sides were locked 4-4 until the last 10 minutes. Penalty corner star Justin Reid-Ross, the leading tournament goalscorer, is the ace in SA’s pack. Crucially, the men in green and gold can’t afford to go walkabout, as they did in allowing a 3-0 quarter-final lead against Japan degenerate into a nerve-jangling 3-2 final score.

It will require an extraordinary all-round performance from every single player if SA are to beat India. No one is exempt, as too often in the preliminary rounds SA mixed the outstanding with the preposterous.

It simply can’t happen against an India side that will explore and then punish any chinks in the home side’s armoury. In set-piece specialist Sandeep Singh, midfielder Saravanjit Singh and a host of others, India have potential match-winners who can turn a game on its head in an instant.

SA captain Austin Smith’s leadership skills will be needed like never before, as tensions are likely to reach fever pitch, such is the importance of this match for the home country.

The earlier semi-final would see two sides who have already qualified for London ÔÇô the Pan-American Games champions Argentina, and Belgium, who qualified in Europe ÔÇô up against each other in a clash that is likely to be equally as explosive.