PHL Leads Way Out Of Wilderness For South African Hockey
Story by Sarah Juggins, pictures courtesy PHL/Marcel Sigg
When the International Hockey Federation (FIH) unveiled its Hockey Revolution blue print, one of the aims was to make hockey events, ‘packed, big and loud’ and, through a comprehensive media package, appeal to a wider audience. Well, the newly-formed Premier Hockey league in South Africa certainly achieved that.
Last September, both men’s and women’s hockey in South Africa broke into new territory as the inaugural Premier Hockey League (PHL) began what most involved feel will be a revolution in the game in South Africa. Played out to packed stadium and televised across Africa by media giants SuperSport, the PHL introduced a whole raft of new fans to a sport that has often been historically associated with the white, middle-class elite.
Certainly the game in the African nation needed an injection of new ideas. With the country’s Olympic Committee (Sascoc) deciding not to send hockey teams to the 2016 Olympics in Rio, South African hockey received a sharp wake-up call: change or just fade away.
Back in 2016, when both teams won the African Championships in Randburg, results which earned them Olympic qualification according to the International Olympic Committee and FIH criteria, Sascoc’s intervention and prevention of the teams taking up their spot in Rio seemed grossly unfair and earn much condemnation from South African hockey players and the global hockey world.
However, prior to the continental qualifiers, the South African Hockey Association (SAHA) had agreed that the teams had to finish in the top-six of the World League to book a place at the Olympics. Both the men and the women’s team’s narrowly missed out on this target.
Chief executive of SAHA, Marissa Langeni said although SAHA were “drastically disappointed not being able to send teams to the Rio Games” it gave them an opportunity to get back to the drawing board.
“We see this as a new opportunity to reposition our sport and to have new aims to look forward to,” she said. “Our big focus now is to qualify for the 2018 World Cup as well as the Commonwealth Games in Australia in the Gold Coast.”
And the PHL is the happy result of SAHA’s new thinking.
The PHL was everything that the FIH has asked for. Gripping action, large crowds of knowledgeable supporters, the best hockey players in the country showcasing their skills – it is the best that hockey can offer.
The winners of the inaugural competition, held at the Randburg Stadium. were The Milo Maropeng Cavemen and the Nestle Pure Life Blyde River Bunters, who emerged triumphant in the men’s and women’s competitions respectively, after four weekends of fierce competition.
Not only did the PHL answer the international federation’s call for big, bold events, it also more than ticked the box of gender equality. It was, claimed SA Hockey Association (SAHA) chief executive Marissa Langeni, the first hockey competition in the world where men and women were on an equal footing both in terms of coverage and remuneration.
“As South African Hockey we proud ourselves of always providing opportunities equally between men and women,” Langeni said.
“This particular league is a global first confirmed by the International Hockey Federation that internationally there is no such league that provides and equal opportunity to both males and females.”
Six men’s and six women’s teams competed, with each side a franchise wholly owned by the SAHA. The players were recruited under a draft system, similar to the USA college draft system. Under the competition format, each team played each other in a league stage before the top four teams progressed to semi-finals and finals.
The 2017 version will take the same format although it will be played in May and June to assist in the preparation of the men’s and women’s national teams for FIH World League Semi-Finals. The new timing will also means that the televised event will not clash with the global football leagues and their broadcast.
National men’s goalkeeper Rassie Pieterse, said the league was one of the most important development in the sport.
“I’ve been playing for South African for many, many years and this is probably one of the most exciting things that could have happened to SA hockey,” Pieterse said.
“This is something we’ve always dreamt of, a professional hockey league, six men’s and six women’s franchises at the same tournament. This can only take hockey to the next level, I mean hockey is one of the fastest growing sports, and this is the type of support we’ve needed.”
The national team’s women’s captain, Nicolene Terblanche agreed with Pieterse’s assessment: “It was a definite success and something different for local hockey. To play with young and experienced players all in the same team and from all different provinces, was amazing,” she said. “Nobody knew each other at first, but if you’re a top hockey player then you need to adapt.
“The PHL was a great success, just ask any of the players and they’ll tell you they wish they were doing this for the last few years. It was well-organised and thanks to SuperSport, the players had the experience of playing on TV and being able to use the video referral system. The only time we’ve had that before has been in international hockey and not a lot of players get to do that. For 16-year-olds, this incredible tournament meant they learnt a lot,” Terblanche added.
After the disappointment of missing out on an Olympic Games, the SAHA has certainly put a lot of thought into driving the sport to a new level. And, despite the fact that it was the government who stopped South Africa’s participation at Rio, much financial help for the setting up of the PHL came from the government-run Department of Sport and Recreation.
Besides developing the game domestically, Langeni said the PHL would play a key role preparing the national men’s and women’s sides for their respective World Cups in 2018, and beyond. In a forward-thinking move, two of the teams who competed in the PHL were the South African Under-21 men’s and women’s teams. The competition served as preparations for the International Hockey Federation (FIH) Junior World Cups, which took place in November. A highest ever finish for the South African men’s team suggests that the strategy payed off – South Africa finished 10th after beating Austria.
For both Pieterse and Terblanche, one of the biggest benefits of the competition was the opportunity it gave for players to experience top class hockey. Due to cost and travel requirements, both the men and women’s national teams struggle to play high quality opposition regularly, so a strong domestic league is vital for player development.
“We had a good mix of experience and younger players that bring a lot of energy and that’s important,” said Pieterse.“For some of the guys from the smaller centres like Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein, Stellenbosch, Pinetown and East London, it was the first time they’ve ever won a gold medal because they play for minnows. Hopefully they can take knowledge back to their clubs because now they’ve experienced what it takes to win a tournament,” Pieterse said.
“I really hope this happens every year now. With no major international tournaments for us in 2016, it was absolutely not a nice year for the national players, but then the PHL came along. We all looked forward to it, it was so exciting and the community really got into the swing of it as well with all the posts on Facebook and other social media.”
“By putting the PHL on TV, it made sure people were talking about it, whenever I went back to the office, my colleagues would ask me about the tournament. So it’s been very positive and I know the players that didn’t play this year are very jealous to miss out,” Terblanche said.
Later, the inspirational captain donated all of her earnings from three Player of the Match awards to the U21 side that set off for the Women’s Junior World Cup in Chile. “I’ve been in their shoes before and know that every cent helps, so I decided to donate all my winnings,” Terblanche said in an interview published on the PHL website.