National juniors come undone at the crucial moment

  • Hockey
  • Monday, 16 Dec 2013

NEW DELHI: It was the best chance for Malaysia to create history, and they fluffed their lines.

That semi-final loss to France will surely haunt Malaysian hockey for years to come.

Yes, the National Juniors failed when it mattered most and ended up fourth in the 10th edition of the Junior World Cup, which ended on Sunday.

Malaysia had finished in the same position in 1979 and 1982.

Four years in the making, and champions of Asia, the National Juniors can still consider the fourth placing an achievement.

Coach K. Dharmaraj’s boys went through the group phase unbeaten. But they came unstuck in the semi-finals, losing 3-1 on penalties to France after both teams were tied at 1-1 in regulation time.

In the third placing playoff, the demoralised Malaysians went down 7-2 to Holland.

To recap, this team (Project 2013) was a four-year collaboration between the Malaysian Hockey Confederation (MHC) and the National Sports council (NSC).

An elaborate and nationwide search for the right personnel saw 165 players going through the various training stints since the end of 2009.

In 2012, the team won the Junior Asia Cup for the first time. A year earlier, they bagged the Sultan of Johor Cup.

In the end, the best 18 players were selected for the New Delhi assignment and they proved their worth with a fourth placing.

But coach Dharmaraj still feels that their bench was a little weak.

“Frankly, we lacked strength and depth on the bench ... I had around 15 players who could hold their own against the top hockey playing nations,” he said.

“I’m not saying the rest were passengers but when it comes to making changes without affecting the flow of the game, it does become a little bit tougher.

“We need to ensure we have a steady number of players who are matured, both in terms of skill and ability, to play in such high-level competitions.

“I have to admit, though, that we were lucky at times, especially in the group stages. But we deserved a place in the semi-finals as we played decent, if not attractive, hockey.”

Judging by the performance here, it looks like many of them are ready to step up to the senior team. As it is, five of them – skipper Fitri Saari, Mohd Firhan Azhaari, Faiz Helmi Jali, Mohd Syamin Yusof and Mohd Rashid Baharom – were already in the senior training squad.

Of the five, Faiz and Fitri impressed the most in New Delhi.

As for the other junior players, Mohd Izad Hakimi, Rashid Baharom, Mohd Syamin Yusof and goalkeepers Mohd Hafizuddin Othman and Mohd Hazrul Faiz look ready to be roped into the senior team.

The senior team have already qualified for the World Cup, which wil be held in The Hague, Holland, next year. The question is whether national coach Paul Revington will dare to take a gamble on these players.

But of immediate concern for the MHC would be the formation of the next juniors outfit. They will have just three years to prepare as the FIH have brought forward the next tournament to 2016.

“We need to start planning for the next Junior World Cup and, at the same time, look into what will happen to this team,” Dharmaraj said.

“I had four years to prepare this team and enjoyed every minute of it. I have no regrets ... although we finished fourth, we played well and performed above expectations.

“We have to realise that when it comes to world hockey, the likes of Germany, Holland, Belgium, Australia and Argentina are way ahead of us.”

The former national defender also called on the MHC to draw up a long-term plan to ensure the team can finish better than fourth in the future.

“We need a long-term plan – at least eight years – working with 12 year olds with the single purpose of lifting the trophy,” he said.

But will the MHC and NSC be willing to invest all that time and money on one team?

Over to you, MHC and NSC.

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