Ahead of the 15th edition of the FIH Hockey Women’s World Cup taking place in Spain and the Netherlands (1-17 July), we’re conducting a series of exclusive interviews with the participating teams. Today: Phumelela Mbande and Bernadette Coston (RSA).
Phumelela, South Africa has played six consecutive FIH Hockey Women’s World Cups since 1998. What do you think you need to work on in order to move this continental dominance to the world level as well?
If one looks at our last interaction on an international stage - the Tokyo 2020 Olympics - there is quite a bit of work for us to do. If you look at the South African hockey team years ago versus where we are now, I think we've let ourselves down quite a bit. The focus at the moment is just to get ourselves play more competitive hockey - we haven't had the real privilege of being able to do that in recent times for various reasons - and then to make sure that, when we do play, we are playing at our own standards. If we're playing against really good teams, we're able to compete. But when we play with maybe lower ranked teams, we don't always dominate like we should. A big focus for us too is to develop our own brand of hockey and then to play it consistently at an international stage.
What have been the key learnings from the Tokyo Olympic Games?
We fight so hard to get ourselves at an international stage. So the big thing for us is to make sure that when we do get that chance we are then playing at the level that it should be. We can't start the tournament slow. If you look at our Tokyo performance, our India game is probably our best performance. By then, it was almost too little too late.
Bernie, what are your expectations as a team for the upcoming World Cup? Have you set yourselves a target?
We definitely have some targets and there's a multiple of them. Like we said, we are lacking a bit of game time and international competition. Our key focus is ourselves, how we need to perform, how we need to build the base and then perform every game to the optimal level that we can. Of course, you want to go to the World Cup not just to participate but to compete. So, we have that in our minds and we’re excited for the challenge.
You’re in a group with Australia, Belgium and Japan. How do you look at each of these teams?
Bernie: They're all different in terms of their style of play. We’re preparing and watching individual video clips and doing our things as we build up. For every tournament, we go into one day at a time, one team at a time.
Phumelela: To add on to what Bernie said, I think a big focus for South Africa at the moment is to build our brand of hockey. We have some really fast players up front, which I think can bring a great element to our game. With Bernie back in, she's a speedster. And as Giles Bonnet has already coached South Africa before, we've seen what he can do for a team and we're excited to be able to play that fast forward moving type of hockey precisely.
Are there some specific areas in your game or maybe even your mental preparation which you will be focusing upon?
If we can mentally prepare to stay focused on the end game and what we're doing and delivering, then we don't get stage fright when we get to a big tournament. We do lack a lot of game time and that is something that I'm sure Giles will be able to improve. We have a lot of faith in him. If our identity as team South Africa can be the focus, then it becomes easier to adapt to whatever game. This is what we're building. It's a process.
Maybe it's because I'm a goalkeeper and I'm in the line of defense but I think our PC defense is something that we can be really strong at. However, we need to be a little bit more adaptable. At the Olympics, India read us like a book!
Bernie, the FIH Hockey Women’s Junior World Cup was played just a few weeks ago in South Africa. It was the very first time that an FIH World Cup was taking place on African soil. It was a big success. Is there any learning from this experience - with your Junior team obviously this time - which potentially can be brought to your team as well?
Yes. We do have a young team. A few of the U20 ones were included but I think as a brand and a culture in South Africa, we are a very resilient country, a very cultured country. So just bringing that from the Junior World Cup, you could see those girls have big hearts, not just South Africa but the entire community. So, a key learning from the Junior World Cup is what can be done in a short amount of time. And, like I said, bringing the youngsters into our team with the older girls having more experience, being South Africans, we’re going to be someone to deal with. It's exciting to introduce also our community and our country to hockey, which is not always as broadly broadcasted as it should be.
Which message would you like to give to your fans?
Bernie: We definitely are there to play for our country, with pride, to represent South Africa. To people, I’d say: “Never stop dreaming!”. That's part of what the international stage is about. We just want to make people proud and we'll do our best!
Phumelela: We always play for the honor and the pride of being part of team South Africa. Our country's been through a lot to a very resilient nation. We want to leave the team better off for future generations. Our contribution is to make sure that we're inspiring the youth whatever it is. If there's one thing I would like us to do is just to make sure that we restore faith, hope and pride in the South African women's hockey team and I have every confidence that this is the team to do it. And this is definitely the coach to do it.