By Mark Etheridge
Beaten finalists by Malta last year, South Africa’s Under-17 water polo players have gone one better in the Czech Republc to be crowned champions of the EU Nations Cup.
Marshalled from the back by skipper Kgomotso Mataka, the boys beat England 8-6 in a hard-fought final, to grab gold in the 12-nation tournament played in the city of Brno.
To reach the final, they’d walloped Wales 13-1, Lithuania 17-6 and then had a sterner struggle against Switzerland, before winning 13-10.
Their semi-final was a tough encounter against the host nation, which they won 12-6.
The final against England was an end-to-end affair, with both sides taking to the pool without having tasted defeat.
After the first quarter they were locked at 2-2. It stayed that way for the next quarter (1-1) and it was only in the final two chukkas that the South Africans edged away, with scores of 3-2 and 2-1.
Said coach, Luvuyo Rubushe: ‘England were a very strong and clinical side. They’ve been together as a team for a while now and were actually preparing for another tournament. But we were well-matched in the pool. We just had to work on what we trusted.’
The SA side’s goals came from Todd Howard and Thomas Hill (three apiece) and Michael Sabor and William Dowsett, who got one apiece.
Howard would end up as the team’s top scorer, with 18 goals for the tournament.
It didn’t help the South African cause that they lost Dowsett at the beginning of the third quarter. ‘He picked up three major fouls, so was excluded and we were down to nine field players. So it was an especially good effort from the team to pull through.’
Rubushe, in his first major international tournament as coach, admitted he felt the pressure. ‘At the beginning of the tour I was very nervous once I had met all of the players. A new sense of responsibility was upon me, with new challenges to face, especially with the pressure of the team from last year finishing second .
‘The boys learned fairly quickly through practice what was expected of them, and I soon realised that this was going to be big.
‘Each game came with its own challenges and there was something new for us to learn in every game.
‘I’m extremely proud of coaching this team to a gold medal. I’m looking forward to the future of this country’s water polo and the development of everyone involved in the sport.’
In his summing up from the captain’s viewpoint, Mataka, a product of St Stithians in Johannesburg, said:
‘From the travelling aspect everything was organised and went according to plan, with each boy having all the correct documentation. The team hotel was good, the staff were fine, the food was fine, although they served too much pork for my own liking.
‘The pool was great, very close to the hotel and an indoor pool, which was needed due to the cold weather.’
But he’s also aware that despite the success, there’s always going to be room for improvement and a need for continued work as a unit.
‘Although we came back with the gold, in some instances we made silly mistakes. and it was visible that we didn’t not have as much team chemistry in the pool as could have been in the case.’
One of the many positive boxes checked in Brno, says Rubushe ‘was that the team’s chemistry grew with every game and ended up rivalling the best-prepped teams of the tournament.
‘Even though we may have been behind in the preparation stakes. that meant nothing to us when we got there because we believed in each other and the players trusted me as their coach.’