#FIHSeriesFinals: Wales hit high five to top Pool B in Valencia, while South Africa defeat Italy in close encounter

Wales moved to the top of Pool B after a convincing 5-0 win over Thailand. The spectators were then in for a real treat as South Africa and Italy played out a high quality, competitive match that could have gone either way. It was South Africa who emerged victorious but both teams showed that they are determined to leave everything on the pitch here in Valencia.

Wales v Thailand

On paper this Pool B match should have been a close contest with Wales ranked 27 and Thailand 28 in the FIH World Rankings. However, Wales’ opening match against South Africa will have sent a warning to all the higher ranked teams at this event that Kevin Johnson and his squad are here to prove their worth on the international stage.

Thailand, for their part, are an Asian side that is developing apace and every match will prove a steep but hugely valuable experience to the young team, that has nine teenagers (including two 15-year-olds) within its ranks.

The opposing styles of play were in evidence from the first whistle. A high press, with Leah Wilkinson as the lynchpin, meant the European side could swing the ball from left to right until a gap appeared. Thailand, by contrast, utilised the aerial ball well to get out of defence and then looked to their speedy forwards to put Wales under pressure.

It was Wales who took the lead when Sophie Robinson struck home from a penalty corner after some great build-up play to give her side a boost just ahead of the quarter break.

The lead was doubled through a courageous diving shot from Leah Wilkinson. The ball had rebounded from a penalty corner and the captain dived full length to send the ball high into the goal, past Siraya Yimkrajang.

A surging run by Natthakarn Aunjai forced the Welsh line back and the Thai team’s collective quick stick work and speedy change of direction caused the Wales’ defence some concerns as the Asian team began to work their way into the match.

The final minutes of the first half saw Wales drop off and form a defensive press, challenging the Thailand team to run at them. The strategy nearly came apart when the ever-dangerous Aunjai intercepted the ball and ran at the defence. Wilkinson was on hand to clear up.

The second half saw Wales really begin to exert pressure on Thailand. Swinging the ball around the pitch, the Welsh were slowly sucking the energy from the Thai players as they sought to get meaningful possession. The ploy was rewarded when Phoebe Richards worked the ball around the back of the Thai defence and slipped it to Natasha Mark-Jones, who had no hesitation in striking it home.

The fourth goal came as a result of a slick penalty corner routine. It was Wilkinson who scored her second of the match, connecting neatly with a slipped pass to send the ball high into the corner of the goal.

A first goal for her country was the reward for a good all-round performance from Xenna Hughes. The ball was crossed in by Sian French and Hughes was in front of the penalty spot and able to put it round the ‘keeper.

Thailand worked hard to find a consoaltion goal and, in the final minutes of the game, the speed of their attack, spearheaded by Kornkanok Sanpoung, caused some chaos in the Wales circle.

“We have a young team and we are learning with every game. We must keep our structure and play with discipline in our next game. We must also take our opportunities better,” Natthakarn Aunjui had said previous to this game. Despite the scoreline, the team is obviously working to fulfill those demands and improving with each game.

“We made sure we stuck to our principles,” said goalscorer Hughes. “We tried out our presses to put pressure on them but also kept our discipline. And our penalty corners worked well. We didn’t give them all away – they are our secret weapon.”

Wales 5, Thailand 0 (Pool B)

Umpires: Dihaya Deepa (IND), Mercedes Sanchez (ARG), 

Match 2

Italy v South Africa

Two teams ranked in the top 20, both feverishly seeking a place in the FIH Olympic qualifiers in October and November – this was always going to be a feisty matchup – a stressful occasion for the teams, a tasty encounter for hockey fans.

Italy (WR:17) came into the game on the back of a dominant 7-0 win over Thailand, while South Africa (WR:15) had endured a much tougher encounter against underrated Wales, a match that ended 2-2.

The match started with both teams playing uncompromising hockey. Maria Socino and Elisabetta Pacella were looking menacing as they probed for a way through the South Africa defence but, marshalled by the experienced Celia Evans, the African champions held firm.

South Africa’s best chance of the first 15 came in the final minute of the quarter after Nomnikelo Veto’s shot was well stopped by Natalia Schinoni in the Italian goal. The resulting penalty corner was cleared safely.

The second quarter was more of the same. Italy were playing quick, smooth passes but were unable to find a final, telling shot. South Africa were extremely busy all over the pitch, chasing for possession or firing balls up to their forward line but with no end product.

A sense of desperation was creeping into both teams’ games as players began carrying the ball too far and getting caught in possession. For Italy, Celina Traverso was playing a fantastic holding role at the heart of the Italian defence, clearing up any South African attack that made it past the Italian midfield line. But, in a measure of how much of this game was being played between the two circles, neither goalkeeper had been unduly challenged for most of the half.

That changed with 30 seconds left on the clock in the first half as Bianca Wood threw herself at the ball as it bobbled in front of Schinoni in the Italian goal. The ball flew into the net and South Africa had the lead they had been seeking.

The third quarter was a good demonstration of game management by South Africa’s experienced players. Evans, Erin Hunter and Lisa Marie Deetlefs in particular, slowed the pace of play, swung the ball around the pitch and generally took the pace out of the Italian attack.

Italy’s job was made tougher when another multi-capped South Africa player, Dirkie Chamberlain, popped up to slam home her team’s second goal and give them a two-goal cushion.

The game became even more dramatic in the final 15 minutes when Eugenia Bianchi scored from a penalty corner. With just a few minutes left on the clock, there was going to be a frenetic end to the game. There were just 30 seconds left when Bianchi had the chance to equal the score but her shot flew tantalisingly inches wide of the South African goal.

Italy’s captain Chiara Tiddy said: “It was such a good game but we should have made more of our possession in the first two quarters. We made two mistakes and they scored twice. But that is what it is and that’s fine.

“We know that the next game against Wales is an important one. We know it will be tough, Wales are strong and run a lot. We know them well though and we will be prepared.”

“After yesterday’s draw we needed that,” said Celia Evans. “We controlled the first half of the game but in the final quarter they put us under a lot of pressure. We conceded a lot of penalty corners but we managed to defend them quite well.”

Goal scorer Dirkie Chamberlain added: “It is great to have people with experience in our squad, The young players bring energy but players like Celia – who has returned from a long term injury – are really important to the squad.

“We now need to think about staying mentally focused, keeping the ball more and probably slowing it down a little. We will be firing and full of energy when we come out against Thailand.”

Today’s results means that Wales top Pool B on goal difference, with South Africa in second place, Italy third and Thailand in fourth.

Italy 1, South Africa 2 (Pool B)
Umpires: Ines El Hajim (FRA) 
Gabriele Schmitz (GER).

Match schedule: Friday 21 June (CET)

17:00 Canada v Namibia (Pool A)
19:00 Belarus v Spain (Pool A)

Please view the match schedule here.