The young members of the New Zealand men’s hockey squad are being asked to prove they belong at the elite level by new coach Darren Smith.
One of six nations in action, New Zealand get their campaign at the annual Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia underway against Australia in Ipoh on Saturday.
The tournament is the team’s last official hit-out before the World League Semifinal in Johannesburg, South Africa in July, where qualification for next year’s World Cup in India is up for grabs.
With eight experienced players still completing club commitments in Europe and four others unavailable through injury or work, Smith has taken a youthful group to face Australia, India, Great Britain, Malaysia and Japan over the next eight days.
The 18-strong squad have an average age of just 23, with captain Arun Panchia, Devon Manchester, Alex Shaw (27) and Nick Ross and Stephen Jenness (26) the only players older than 25.
Given so much experience would soon be back in contention, Smith said it was vital the younger players pushed their case for inclusion at an eight-day camp on the Gold Coast in June, from which the squad for South Africa would be chosen.
“If you’re getting an opportunity you want to make sure you’re on to it because if are you, you start to be entrenched in the squad leading into a World Cup and Tokyo [Olympic Games].
“Numerous guys are in that boat with us right now, it’s their time to push hard and show they are international hockey players.
“If you don’t it can quickly move away from you and others get picked. Selection starts to narrow and quite quickly the best are being chosen, you want to be one of them.”
While interested to see how the young players would step up, Smith admitted that would not be easy against some of their Azlan Shah Cup opposition.
In contrast to the squad eighth-ranked New Zealand had sent, his assessment of the squads their first two opponents, world No 2 Australia and world No 6 India, was strong.
Although he wanted his team to perform well throughout, their prospects were better against seventh-ranked Great Britain, Malaysia (14) and Japan (16) and he admitted they had targeted “some games” they wanted maximum points from.
The Black Sticks won this tournament in 2015 and were third last year, a repeat of which would go some way to leaving the coach satisfied.
“If we statistically compete well and progress I’ll be pretty happy but we want to be in the medal games and avoid fifth and sixth,” Smith said.
“If we play for gold we would have done a really good job because there are some smart teams here. If we play for third then I’d be happy and if we play for fifth it just depends what has happened in the tournament.”
The New Zealand side, who lost a five-match series 2-1 to Pakistan at home in March a few weeks after Smith took charge, arrived in Malaysia last Saturday, giving them plenty of time to acclimatise to the sweltering temperatures and stifling humidity.
After an 8-2 thrashing by the hosts in a warm-up game the following day as they were still adjusting to the conditions, the young Kiwi outfit bounced back with a 3-3 draw in a rematch on Tuesday and had an informal hit-out against Great Britain on Thursday.
They had also been boosted by the arrival of experienced defender Kane Russell from his Belgian club.
The drag-flick exponent had replaced Kim Kingstone in the squad after the striker was knocked out in the second warm-up clash with Malaysia and was sent home a couple of days later to continue his recovery.
Having played around “80 to 90” of his 212 tests in Malaysia, more than he predicted he played in New Zealand, Smith said he was throughout enjoying and looking forward to what was to come in his first trip away in his dream job.
“Even if the team is more experienced there are always a few nerves. I just want the team to do a good job, play well and win internationally.
“I’m lucky I get a front row seat and get to live the game with the boys, which is something I’ve been keen to do for a few years now.”
AT A GLANCE
Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, Ipoh, Malaysia
New Zealand squad: Cory Bennett (age 25), David Brydon (20), Robert Creffier (24), Stephen Jenness (26), Richard Joyce (24), Jonty Keaney (21), Kane Russell (25), Sam Lane (19), Devon Manchester (27), Leo Mitai-Wells (21), Harry Miskimmin (22), George Muir (22), Dominic Newman (20), Arun Panchia (27), Hayden Phillips (18), Nick Rosss (26), Alex Shaw (27), Mac Wilcox (20).
New Zealand schedule (NZ times):
Sat, April 29: vs Australia, 10pm
Sun, April 30: vs India, 8pm
Tue, May 2: vs Japan, 10pm
Thu, May 4: vs Malaysia, 12.30am
Fri, May 5: vs Great Britain, 8pm
Sat, May 6: Playoff matches
– Courtesy of Stuff