CWG 2022: 'If only': SA's keeper Jones is MoM but it's a consolation prize

Gowan Jones put in a man-of-the-match performance for South Africa against India in the men's hockey semifinal of the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games. PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images

After the final hooter went, Gowan Jones looked one last time at the giant scoreboard and slumped to the floor. What he saw there was India 3 - 2 South Africa.

0 minutes left.

He had not even been on the pitch for the last three.

For a full minute he just sat there, crying, disconsolate. Teammate Siyavuya Nolutshungu hurried over, sat next to him, smiling, rubbing his head, telling him how well he had just played, willing him to get up.

Jones is South Africa's goalkeeper, and he was the reason they had been in this Commonwealth Games semifinal against India till the very end. He had faced 13 shots, and saved 11. Nolutshungu, the unused substitute keeper, was the one person on the team who could empathise with what Jones was going through.

The two goals that went through him had been the definition of unsaveable - an instinctive tomahawk from Abhishek from just inside the T and a low, smashed finish from Mandeep Singh, who'd run in behind the defence and was through one-on-one. Both were sensational finishes, and needed to be. India's third goal came when Jones was off the field, South Africa chasing an equaliser. Jugraj Singh scored off a penalty corner into the goalkeeper-less South Africa goal. As that third goal went in, Jones looked distraught on the sidelines: the man who had saved six penalty corners unable to do a thing about the seventh.

It's that sense of helplessness that seemed to define Jones towards the end. He had done everything, and yet, it counted for naught. Legs stuck out at the last second, a padded hand placed exactly where it needed to, strong enough to deflect the ball away from danger, body lain on the line: all of it for what?

After the match, Jones would compose himself and come out to the mixed zone to speak to this reporter. "At the end I was just thinking," he said, "if we scored... if we could take them to the one-v-ones, we would take it [the penalty shootout]." Going by what we had seen in game, his confidence didn't seemed misplaced.

The feeling of helplessness had seemingly been pushed down, only to be replaced by ruefulness. 'If only...'

As a goalkeeper all he can do is save a match, not win one. "It gets frustrating," he said. "Of course it does. But I'm also seeing the legwork the guys are putting in and the speed that they are working at..." There's no sense of blame. He seems to want to make that very clear. The disappointment is not that others didn't do enough, but that he couldn't do enough.

Through the game he had stayed on point. "Just watch the ball," he said, explaining what he does that makes him so good. "There's so much happening around you. The Indian guys are so good at running across you and changing lines and changing angles... just stay still and watch the ball and try and wait as long as possible for the ball to come to you [before committing]."

He had to be tuned in, because India - superior on the ball to the South African outfielders - kept at it. Chance after chance was created, and it remains remarkable that the score remained what it did. "More than us missing chances," said Manpreet Singh, India captain, "it was how about good [Jones] was."

Jones will think, though, it wasn't good enough. Now, comes the even harder bit: to push this out of his mind and refocus for the bronze. The job's not done. South Africa had impressed in the tournament, more than ever before. In fact, this was just their second semifinal in six attempts, their first in two decades. Every Indian player who spoke in the mixed zone spoke highly of them, praising their quality and effort and singling out Jones for the sensational player that he is.

Jones and his teammates know that the real mark of progress will be a medal around their necks. It's how they move past the disappointment of being achingly close to the colour of said medal being gold or silver that will define their tournament.

For now, though, Gowan Jones has his frustration. Player of the match, hero in between the sticks, ultimately not a part of the winning side, not even part of the final few minutes of their attempt-to-win.

It's a hard pill to swallow, but head down, he promises to do it. His team need him to. That's his life: competition does not allow for wallowing. The cruel agony of the goalkeeper is his and his cross to bear alone.