The Premier Hockey League (PHL) has been hailed as one of the most exciting developments in the history of the local game and the feeling of excitement among the couple hundred players who arrived in Johannesburg ahead of the tournament launch on Saturday was obvious.
Thanks to the considerable financial support of the Department of Sport and Recreation, the inaugural PHL will be hosted at the Randburg Astro and will consist of both a men’s and women’s league that will run over four weekend’s – from this Saturday to Sunday, 25th September 2016.
Six men’s and six women’s teams, playing as franchises that are 100% owned by the South African Hockey Association (SAHA), will play each other once in a league stage before the top four teams progress to the semi-finals, to be followed by the grand finals on the last Sunday in September 2016.
The teams are named after famous tourist areas in South Africa and are representative of all nine Provinces. This year, two of the 12 participating teams will be the SA U21 men’s and women’s teams, allowing them to prepare for the International Hockey Federation (FIH) Junior World Cups which take place later this year. The SA U21 men will play as the Private Property Golden Gate Gladiators and the SA U21 Women as the Lip Ice Namaqualand Daisies.
“This is probably the most exciting development ever in South African hockey and when you walk in here you can feel the buzz as all the players arrive. Everybody is extremely excited and this tournament will mean a lot in the development of our younger players,” national men’s team goalkeeper Rassie Pieterse, one of the marquee players for the Maropeng Cavemen, said at the Milpark Garden Court hotel – the hotel where all the players are staying with thanks to the support of event partners, Tsogo Sun.
The teams were selected via a draft process, apart from four marquee players who were allocated to each franchise by the national men’s and women’s coaches.
“All the teams have a good mix of senior and international players, so the youngsters will learn a lot,” Pieterse added.
Both the national U21 teams are especially delighted to be playing in the PHL, with women’s coach Patrick Tshutshani saying the tournament comes at a critical stage of their preparations for the Junior World Cup in Santiago, Chile, from 24th November 2016.
“The PHL is a wonderful concept and the team will get to play top-quality hockey against the best in the country and test their skills, so it will be great preparation. There are less than 80 days before the Junior World Cup, so this is a great step for the team,” Tshutshani said.
With many of the players having not lined up alongside their PHL team-mates before (because of the innovative draft system), the sides are likely to be less structured than usual and plenty of goals are expected as attacking players should flourish.
A team like the Schick Garden Route Gazelles boasts the attacking skills of Lloyd Norris-Jones, Pierre de Voux, Keenan Horne and Reece Arendse.
“This initiative is very welcome and we look forward to seeing it grow and hockey with it. We’ve managed to get a decent side together, we have a lot of attacking players and we’ll just try and score more goals than we concede,” Norris-Jones said.
The SchickGarden Route Gazelles will take on the Private Property Golden Gate Gladiators in their opening game on Saturday and national U21 men’s coach Garreth Ewing said he hoped his team would at least make the semi-finals.
“We want to play as many games as we can before our world cup and winning obviously makes you happy, but it’s not a holy grail for us. Our focus is on our preparation for the World Cup and we’re going to work quite a lot on our structure, especially on defence and cement our style of play,” Ewing said.
Perhaps the most intriguing game of the first week of the PHL will be Sunday morning’s opening clash between the Young Solutions St Lucia Lakers and the Ezee Tile Madikwe Rangers.
Long-serving national women’s team star Shelley Russell will be a key figure for the Lakers, but she will be up against as many as seven of her Southern Gauteng team-mates in the Rangers team.
“Playing against the Rangers will mean I’m predominantly up against players I’m used to playing with. I just hope they have a go at the youngsters rather than me,” Russell joked.
“But this whole concept is very exciting and something we haven’t done before, it has awesome potential. The most excellent part of it is getting to know new players, different styles of playing and coaching structures,” Russell added.
This weekend’s fixtures
Saturday: 10am Mapungubwe Mambas v Addo Elephants (M); 12pm Blyde River Bunters v Orange River Rafters (W); 2pm Drakensberg Dragons v Maropeng Cavemen (M); 4pm Namaqualand Daisies v Wineland Wings (W); 6pm Garden Route Gazelles v Golden Gate Gladiators (M).
Sunday: 8am St Lucia Lakers v Madikwe Rangers; 10am Mapungubwe Mambas v Drakensberg Dragons; 12pm Blyde River Bunters v Wineland Wings; 2pm Addo Elephants v Garden Route Gazelles; 4pm Namaqualand Daisies v Orange River Rafters.