KUALA LUMPUR: The National Under-21 hockey tournament, which begins today at the National Hockey Stadium in Bukit Jalil here, will provide a sneak preview of what is in store in the Malaysia Junior Hockey League (MJHL).
The MJHL will begin next month and almost all the teams in the Under-21 meet have players who will feature in it.
Defending champions Kuala Lumpur and Pahang have the bulk of the players from Tenaga Nasional and Telekom Pahang. And they are the early favourites to take the Under-21 title.
A total of 13 teams, including two foreign sides are in the tournament. Australia's New South Wales Institute of Sports will be making their debut while Singapore are back in the fray after a seven-year lapse.
The quality of the tournament is expected to be high. All the Malaysian teams have been in training for the last four months since Sukma (Malaysia Games) in Kota Kinabalu.
Many of the top players have also been in training with their respective clubs and their fitness level is higher.
The previous years when the Under-21 meet was held after the MJHL, many states were ill-prepared with players shying away.
But this time, the players are expected to prove themselves in the meet to secure first team places in their clubs sides. In fact, quite a number of the players also took part in the recent Champions Schools meet.
Thus coaches feel that the quality of play will be higher than in previous years. The presence of the Australians has also given the competition a boost.
KL coach Nor Saiful Zaini felt that the Australians would pose their biggest threat in their bid to retain the title.
“We see them as the biggest threat to our aspirations.
“But we have a formidable side with many experienced players. We are determined to win the title again. We were also champions in Sukma, which is also a Under-21 tournament,” he said.
KL have World Cupper Tajol Rosli and Junior World Cup players P. Prabhakaran and Jivan Mohan in their ranks.
They also have national Under-19 players in their side – Engku Abdul Malek Engku Mohamed, Kelvindar Singh, Mohd Redza Maadun, Mohamed Fairuz Hamsani, Mohd Fakhrulrazi and Mohd Izwan Hassan.
The others, among them Mohamed Hanapi, Mohd Firdaus Razali, Kamaruddin Abdul Rahman, K. Regan, M. Manikumaran, Wan Asyrizal Wan Mustapa and Mohamed Hosni Abdul Rahman, have featured for clubs sides in the last two MJHL championships.
Besides Pahang, the local challenge for KL will come from Perak, Selangor, and Penang.
Selangor coach I. Vicknesweran said: “I think we will see a lot more commitment from the teams as they players look towards the MJHL. I believe that by having the Under-21 before the MJHL makes it an important tournament.”
Selangor are the last team to win back-to-back titles in 1991 and 1992. Since then five teams have won the title. Johor in 1993, Pahang in 1995, Penang in 1997, Perak in 1999 and KL in 2001.
KL have also won the title four times in a row from 1987. They have a team good enough to lift the title for a sixth time.
The Under-21 tournament will also be the domestic tournament where the new rules in penalty corners will be implemented.
The new rules allow the ball to be stopped above the shoulders with the stick by a player defending the corner. The ball is also not required to be stopped dead before a hit is taken at goal.