KUALA LUMPUR: The national Under-19 team go into their third – and toughest – international outing when they take on South Korea in the opening match of the MHF Under-19 International Invitational at the National hockey Stadium in Bukit Jalil.
So far, the team, who were formed in June last year, have been performing brilliantly. They took part in the Poland Under-18 world hockey festival in August and came out tops, beating Germany twice. They then entered the domestic Razak Cup in October and finished a very creditable third.
But up against Asia's top sides like India, the reigning junior world champions, South Korea and Pakistan, the team face a far tougher test than any before.
National Juniors coach Stephen van Huizen admitted as much. He said this test would be harder for his boys as they would be facing some of the more established teams around.
“What makes the tournament interesting is that, in just over a year, we will face these three teams in a bid to qualify for the 2005 Junior World Cup. The results here will show us how we stand against these teams and what we need to do before the qualifiers.
“For the players, they need to show us if the training over the past six months has improved their game. More importantly, it is also another chance for players to stake a claim in the National Juniors side,'' added Stephen, who will be in charge of the team for the last time. His secondment to the NSC has ended and he will return to his job with the Bumiputra Commerce Bank.
The MHF will name his replacement after the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in March.
Stephen, however, is planning on going out with a bang. With three coaches – Tai Beng Hai, Sarjit Singh and A. Arulselvaraj – assisting him, he has the manpower to work on his players.
The team for the Under-19 meet is an experienced outfit with six players having made it into the senior training squad. They are Megat Azrafiq, who was in the bronze-winning Busan Asian Games team, Engku Malek Abdulah, Mohamed Suppian, Mohamed Fakhrulradzi, Mohamed Sallehin and Mohamed Shahrun Nabil.
Tournaments like this are what the players need to be groomed into a top-notch outfit.
Winning the meet, however, will be a tall order. India come into the meet after having won a four-nation meet in Egypt in August. En route to the victory, they defeated Pakistan 3-1.
More importantly they are the junior world champions and are building a side for their defence in 2005. And in skipper Prabjot Tirkey, they have a player who can swing a match their way.
Pakistan, meanwhile, will be hoping to relaunch their junior challenge after failing to make the cut for the last Junior World Cup in Hobart.
With the qualifiers to be held in Pakistan this time around, they will be looking to boost morale here.
The Koreans too have a team which have been groomed for two years.
With the other teams rebuilding their sides, Malaysia, with an experienced side, look to be the favourites.
But Stephen is not buying any of that.
“Let us face it. This is a tournament for us to test our strength against the top teams. So, the results should not matter greatly although a win will boost the players' morale. Besides, our team we also will get a chance to gauge the other sides,” he said.