KUALA LUMPUR: World number six New Zealand will start as favourites in the Champions Challenge I which starts in Kuantan on Saturday.
The Kiwis, the highest ranked side in the eight-team tournament, aim to regain their place in the elite top-eight Champions Trophy next year.
The Champions Challenge I, which will be played at the Wisma Belia Stadium in Kuantan from Saturday until May 4, will double up as a qualifier for the 2016 Champions Trophy.
It will also serve as a platform for Malaysia, South Korea and New Zealand to continue their preparations for the World Cup in The Hague, Holland, next month.
New Zealand, more fondly known as The Black Sticks, are in Group A with Japan, Ireland and Poland while world No. 13 Malaysia have South Korea, Canada and France for company in Group B.
“We view this Champions Challenge I as an important tournament. It’s not just about preparing for the World Cup but we also want to gain ranking points and qualify for the Champions Trophy. So, this is really a key event for us,” said New Zealand head coach Colin Batch.
New Zealand, whose team comprises a mix of youth and experience, have improved by leaps and bounds since the 2012 London Olympics.
Eleven of the 18 players short-listed by Hockey New Zealand for the Champions Challenge I tournament have amassed more than 100 international caps each, with skipper Dean Couzins (300 caps) leading the charge.
New Zealand got off to a positive start this year by winning a silver medal at the World League Final in New Delhi, India. It was their best result at a major tournament since defeating Australia to clinch the gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
“We are playing with confidence and that’s pleasing. We are looking forward to heading to Malaysia and doing some further training over there before the tournament gets under way,” said Batch.
Kiwi skipper Couzins picked up his 300th cap last Saturday against Australia in a two-test series.
He is just the second New Zealander to have reached the milestone. Team-mate Phil Burrows is the other one.
Following his debut in 2001, Couzins has become a pillar of strength in the Black Sticks’ defence.
Couzins, who said it was a huge honour to have played 300 times for New Zealand, aims to lead his team to the top of the heap in Kuantan.