SOUTHS has advance to its third straight men’s Premier League Hockey decider after winning a tense preliminary final 2-0 over St Pat’s on Saturday.
It was the third time this season Souths had beaten the Saints at Bob Roach Field, but the two blues certainly had to work harder for the victory than was the case earlier in the year.
The Saints enjoyed the better of the chances in the first half and applied more pressure in the second stanza, but Souths stood firm in defence.
Souths’ two goals – one in either half – came on the back of quick counter-attacks. Nick McEwen netted the first, while veteran Chris Hanrahan slotted the second to see his side join Lithgow Panthers in the grand final.
Souths coach Ray Winwood-Smith admitted he was nervous as he watched his rivals press, but he was proud of the way his team responded.
“They put us on the back foot in the first, probably 10 minutes of the game. As I said to the boys before the game ‘Don’t assume they will play the same style as what they have been, because you never do that in finals’,” he said.
“But I am super proud of the boys, the way they scrambled. It was probably one of our uglier games, but it was fast, it was intense and skilful and to be honest, there wasn’t a lot between the two sides.
“We just took our opportunities and made sure they weren’t.
“Rudgey [goalkeeper John Rudge] by far had his best game of the year, he had a blinder, and Bryce [Hitchcock] at left half, he stepped up today. They were probably the two guys for us that made the difference.”
Rudge was called into action early as the minor premiers found themselves under pressure from a Pat’s side buoyed by the confidence of an upset win over Lithgow Zig Zag in the minor semi-final seven days earlier.
The goalkeeper made a nice save off Pat’s first penalty corner of the match in the 9th minute, and soon after he breathed another sigh of relief after Tyler Willott burst into the circle but fired his shot just wide.
However, on 14 minutes when McEwen got a chance for Souths, he took it. Given space, his speed allowed him to work into the circle and his powerful shot went under diving Saints goalkeeper Taylor Newton.
Ten minutes out from the break Pat’s very nearly drew level when Aiden Charters met a cross from Jaden Ekert, but Rudge launched himself at the ball and was able to turn it away from the goal.
Next it was Newton who came up with a brilliant block when he denied McEwen on another counter-attacking play.
The frenetic pace of the match continued right up until the final two minutes of the half with Hitchcock clearing a shot off the line and another attempt from Ekert flashing past the post.
Souths headed to the break with a 1-0 lead, but Pat’s were certainly not out of the contest as Blake Davis was shining in the midfield.
Soon after play resumed it was Brent Naylor who came up with yet another defensive highlight – this time for the Saints. He cleared off the line after a diving Jono Cole connected with a McEwen cross.
But at the 40 minute mark Souths struck again. A long ball found an unmarked Hanrahan in the circle and while his shot clattered into Newton’s pads, it deflected off the legs of the shot blocker into the goal.
That put Souths 2-0 up, but it certainly did not look like game over at that point.
Two minutes after Hanrahan found the mark, Rudge was required to come up with a save from the Saints’ third penalty corner of the match.
Soon after Rudge again denied the Saints when Darcy Davis found room along the baseline after some nice build-up work from Blake Davis.
With 13 minutes left on the clock Souths’ Jordan Barnard found himself in a one-on-one against Newton, but the Pat’s goalkeeper was quick off his line and slid out to make the block.
In the final 10 minutes it was all the Saints in attack, but they just could not hit the target. Even after Ekert managed to wrong-foot Rudge to create a golden opportunity, his following shot went just wide.
While proud of the effort of his players, Pat’s coach Niel Howard could not help but be disappointed, especially given the chances they created in the first half but were unable to capitalise on.
“That first half we created, I felt it was six almost certain goals,” Howard said.
“We did the leg work, we did the build up, we did everything we said we needed to do, but our last touch let us down a lot.
“Maybe our marking at the back hurt us a little bit, but McEwen is pretty quick.
“We still created opportunities up until the last minute and a half, Jaden had a shot with a minute, 45 to go. Are you going to score another one in that minutes, 45? They may have taken a minute to walk back to the centre, you don’t know.
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“To me we were the fitter side, we created more opportunities, but they took their opportunities.”
Though the Saints finished 2018 without a win on their home turf, with the amount of juniors Howard blooded at Premier League level this season, the future looks bright.
“Our younger generation coming through, I think we had seven there who are in our under 18s side. Tell me another club in Premier League who has seven under 18s in their squad and playing regularly?,” the coach said.
“So we’ll go back, rebuild and see what happens next year.”
Souths will now attempt to do something they have not managed the last two years on grand final day – beat the Lithgow Panthers at Lithgow.
“Hopefully it will be third time lucky. We are confident, we are playing well, we’ve got the team set,” Winwood Smith said.
“We know what we are doing and know what we need to do at the end of the day.”