Mixed fortunes for defending champs at soggy start to PHL

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The Addo Elephants desperately try to keep out another penalty corner during their 4-0 loss to the Drakensberg Dragons on the opening day of the Premier Hockey League in Johannesburg

A good dose of sibling rivalry was just the thing to inspire Amkelwe Letuka to his first ever goal for the Drakensberg Dragons as the Premier Hockey League kicked off in a rain-soaked Johannesburg today.

Playing against his twin brother, Onke, Letuka’s was the second of four goals that his side scored against last year’s runners up – the Addo Elephants.

It was an impressive result for the team that finished bottom of the pile last year and came via two successful penalty corners and two field goals.

“We were expecting a good result because this team is a really good team. But we didn’t expect 4-0,” admitted Letuka afterwards.

“It was pretty tough – and even tougher when you’re playing against your brother as a defender. I won the battle today so I’m pretty chuffed with that. I’m very happy – it was pretty good goal.”

The other goals came from Gareth Heyns, Dylan Swanepoel and Nqobile Ntuli, whose brother Sihle coaches the team. “It was a much tougher game than the result suggests. 4-0 is a very flattering result but for our first game, we’re very happy,” said the coach afterwards.

“We actually spoke about it yesterday. The biggest disappointment last year – if we look at all our games, we actually outplayed our opponents. The stats were in our favour but we just didn’t convert so for us to come away with four goals today is a really good start to our tournament.

“A big thing for us today was to not concede – that’s a very good sign for us. The Elephants team have some good players up front so it was a great defensive effort,” added Ntuli, whose side were lucky to avoid the worst of the rain that was to follow.

The next couple of matches were badly affected by downpours. Defending women’s champions, the Blyde River Bunters, managed to get in 30 minutes against the SA under-21 team, playing as the Namaqualand Daisies, before the pitch became too water-logged.

The Bunters were 1-0 up at the time, thanks to an early penalty corner goal from Elmien Marais. But that counted for nothing as the match eventually had to be decided in a shootout, starting back at 0-0. Much to the 2016 winners’ relief, they maintained the upper hand and won the shootout 2-1.

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The Blyde River Bunters’ Lauren Nina and the Namaqualand Daisies’ Casey-Jean Botha battle for the ball on the opening day of the Premier Hockey League in Johannesburg during the 30 minutes of match-time they managed to get in before heavy rain stopped play

“With the weather turning as it is, being 1-0 up and it becoming more and more difficult, to have to go to a shootout was a little bit disappointing but that’s the rules,” explained Bunters coach Lindsey Wright afterwards. “And it was good experience to get the shootout under our belts and to show good character to be able to hang in there and grab the three points.”

Asked if she was happy with the team’s performance in the half they did manage to play, Wright said: “Not totally. The conditions were difficult to play flowing hockey. There were a couple of concepts that they did very well though.

“We’ve just got to do a few tweaks and I’m happy that we can do that before tomorrow’s game. So I have all the confidence in the world that they will get better as the tournament progresses,” said Wright, adding that she hoped national star player Celia Evans would have recovered from illness to rejoin the team by next weekend.

The men’s defending champions, the Maropeng Cavemen, were also scheduled to be in action on the opening day. But no regular play was possible due to the persistent rain and their match against the Garden Route Gazelles was also reduced to a shootout – which last year’s bronze medallists won 2-1.

The storm clouds cleared just enough for the last two matches of the day to be completed, albeit in unseasonably chilly conditions. The St Lucia Lakers pulled off a comfortable 4-1 victory over the Orange River Rafters. Tiffany Jones and Bianca Wood scored in the opening quarter to give the Lakers a 2-0 lead going into the first break. Lerato Mahlangu pulled one back for the Rafters in the 35th minute, and while her side thought that they had managed to draw level not long after, the goal was disallowed on referral.

The Lakers’ Ayanga Baleni then found the back of the net in the 59th minute for the 3-1 lead, with Pollert Mashau slotting in the last goal of the game with less than 10 seconds on the clock.

It was then the Mapungubwe Mambas who secured a massive victory in the final match of the day, beating the SA men’s under 21 team, the Golden Gate Gladiators, by a margin of 6-1, which included a hat-trick from Jarryd Jones.

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photos: Marcel Sigg

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