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Camaraderie is common on any sporting battleground, but rarely would it be more evident between opposing teams than at the weekend when England and South Africa began their World Hockey League semi-finals campaign at the University of Westminster in Chiswick.

As eight top international teams began their campaigns to qualify for the World Cup in the Netherlands next year and the finals of this global series in Argentina in November and December, two best mates exchanged a wry smile at the handshake of their first match. 

While fierce combatants on the field – and engaged in a high stakes tournament that runs in London until this Sunday – these teams have clashed regularly in recent years and formed a close bond. None more so than South African striker Dirkie Chamberlain and England midfielder Susannah Townsend, best buds who share sun and sand holidays and, from next season, will playing for the same club at Reading.

Susannah Townsend

When she makes the permanent move to the UK, Dirkie will also join Susannah – and three other England representatives – at their High Wickham sharehouse.

When they’re in national colours though, all bets are off. “As soon as we’re playing hockey, we’re playing hockey, for our country and our team – she wants to beat England and I want to beat South Africa, or Australia or whatever team we’re playing against,” Susannah tells TNT. “I don’t think about my friendship with her at all beyond maybe a cheeky smile at the handshake.

“If [a friend] goes down injured, there’s nothing you can do, you just carry on with your game. That’s the job. You play hockey and you want to win. If you make her cry at the end, then so be it.”

Ouch. In a reverse of her constantly laughing off-field persona, Susannah would have been watching her back on Saturday night. Even though Dirkie plays in the forward line, she said she had no qualms in tracking back to get one over her pal. 

“It’s going to be my favourite game,” Dirkie told us last week. “I’m playing against her and other friends of mine, so there’s so much more on the line. Then there’s the bragging rights to think about. I want to be able to say, ‘We’ve got one up on you’.” 

Those bragging rights will be won by now, but there’s still a big job for both players and teams to do. This is an important tournament for all sides. World hockey’s governing body has unified its competitions to make this international series matter for both teams, along with Australia and Spain who make up their side of the draw in pool B.

Ladder positions after their three group games (two played on Saturday and Sunday, with one to come this Tuesday) will determine who they play against in the vital quarter-final matches on Thursday.

The result of that game effectively decides the next year in the life of these countries. Make the semi-finals and you’ve made the top four, make the top four and you’re automatically going to the World Cup and are off to the WHL finals.

The tournament not only makes every international match matter, but presents a feast for spectators, with four top-level games each day of the tournament (tickets are sold for the whole day). On Saturday, June 29, quarter-final winners jostle for a place in the final on Sunday, June 30, while the losers also battle out for valuable minor placings. 

“It really comes down to that quarter-final,” Dirkie says. “We basically have to perform well in the group games to get a good match in the quarters.”Prospective quarters opponents from pool A include the world champions and Olympic silver medallists Argentina, 2008 silver medallists China, unpredictable USA and Italy, who won their previous round of the WHL despite being seeded third.


Friendly rivalry: England and South Africa find their biggest fans in each other as they fight for World Cup places in London this week
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