Birmingham — “Every time we play is for something bigger than ourselves,” said Mustapha Cassiem, South Africa’s 20-year-old forward, brother of Dayaan and one of a cohort of counter-attacking green shirts after advancing to a first Commonwealth Games semi-final in 20 years on Thursday night.
There have been some extraordinary finishes to games here, but this 4-3 thriller against New Zealand must rank as the best quality encounter of all for its sheer tempo. South Africa’s win sets them up for a semi-final against India on Saturday night.
Players running at pace, sticks clattering, blocks and counters. This was high-pressure stakes, with the winner advancing to the last four.
The Black Sticks pushed South Africa the distance, but the 2018 finalists, who came back from 3-1 to 3-3 with 13 minutes remaining, fell just short.
“The boys put up an absolute fight,” said Mustapha, who first picked up a stick aged five and hasn’t looked back, told The Hockey Paper.
“The passion we as South Africans bring showed and we’ve been doing it since the start of the tournament. The coach picked the right team, the right squad. We kept calm and got the result.
“Our key was to hit them on the counter, but credit to our keepers who kept us in the game.
“Playing these nations is always a privilege, they all have world-class set ups and our boys grafted and fought hard.”
Matt Guise-Brown had played his hand with two powerful corner goals to give South Africa that 3-1 lead. South Africa nearly made it four but for a wonderful save by Leon Hayward, whose left arm and glove deflected a Nqobile Ntuli scoop when put through.
It was the second of two clinical stops and paved the way for Jake Smith and Hugo Inglis to level up for the buoyant Black Sticks.
Aerials into the circle were finding the Cassiems, while Ryan Julius was inches away from the right connection with a sliding dive on the line. And if this was a match to be decided by fractions, their winner was only decided once again by a second video referral, Connor Beauchamp subsequently netting with seven minutes left.
The Kiwis immediately switched to 11 outfield players for the remainder of the game as South Africa stopped their counters and played out time.
“The players who have come before us have set the bar, and this squad is so special,” added Mustafa. “There is a lot of talent, but the hard work is what we put in. Going forward and what’s next for us is so key.
“For the hockey community back home this should mean something for them. Just to get South Africa to believe that we can be in the top 10, for the kids back home, it’s a big dream, anything’s achievable.”