Kuala Lumpur (3 January, 2017): Malaysia Tigress coach K. Dharmaraj believes the battle for supremacy in the Women World League Round 2 will only begin in the quarterfinals stage of the event held from Jan 14-22 at the Tun Razak Hockey Stadium.
All the eight teams competing here, said Dharmaraj, will automatically qualify for the Jan 19 quarterfinals upon completion of their respective pool matches and the journey to the Hockey World League Semi-finals will depend on whom the Malaysians face in the last eight of the competition.
“It is very important that we finish top of our group in the preliminary round,” said Dharmaraj. “This will put us in a better position to play the lower rank teams in the quarterfinal and move forward from there,” he said, adding this is the most crucial point in the tournament for all teams.
Malaysia Tigress, ranked at world No 21, will be joined by world No 16 Ireland, Kazakhstan (33) and Hong Kong (37) in Group B whilst Italy, ranked world No 15, Thailand (31), Wales (32) and Singapore (43) are in Pool A.’
“We will be looking to finish in the top two to ensure a ticket to the Semi-finals of the World Cup qualifying round. Given these options, we must aim to go on top of Group B standings, which also means winning three points against Ireland in our pool match on Jan16,” said Dharmaraj.
Dharmaraj’s Tigress, however, will have a first look at the Irish machinery in a friendly match on Jan 9. The Irish women’s team will finally get back into competitive action after an 18-month wait with the first stage in the World Cup qualifying bid and are scheduled to arrive in Kuala Lumpur on Jan 4 (Wednesday) in an early preparation for the tournament.
Meanwhile, with a world ranking of 16, Graham Shaw’s side go into the competition as the second highest ranked team, with Italy, who are ranked 15th, the other big gun.
Despite being one of the fancied sides, Shaw says the timing of the competition has made preparation tricky.
“When the tournament is at this time, it’s incredibly difficult for European teams to prepare for it with the difference in time, weather and humidity,” he told The Irish Times.
No other opponents were available for practice matches due to the Christmas break, and so regional camps were organised on Dec 22nd and 23rd as well as on the 29th and 30th.
“We have got seven days in Malaysia to sharpen ourselves up pre-tournament. It’s certainly not ideal. But the girls are quite a self-driven squad. With nutrition and the requirements of being an elite athlete, the girls are well aware of what it takes when it comes to over-indulgence!”
It will be their first world-ranking event for Ireland since July 2015 when they claimed the EuroHockey Champions Trophy, a month after missing out on a ticket to Rio by the thickness of a post.
However, the Irish will be without Emma Gray, Kate Dillon and Emma Smyth who have since retired while Aine Connery has not been training with the squad constantly.
Shaw tried out a large number of new faces in the challenge matches in 2016, notably the Hawkes Bay Cup in New Zealand in April, where they beat Olympic-bound India and Korea. Lena Tice and Zoe Wilson are the new finds in defence who will form the nucleus of the next generation.
“We feel now we are stronger across the board and across different lines. That’s been a real plus. The introduction of those younger players of that quality has been brilliant and we are excited about what they can do in the future.”
Another addition who will make debut in January is Roisin Upton following two NCAA titles with the UConn Huskies. Her inclusion gives Ireland more options in midfield and defence.
She is also a player who can potentially replace team captain Megan Frazer who is currently recovering from a cruciate knee ligament injury.
“Losing Megan is incredibly disappointing but players like Zoe, Roisin and Lena are able to do that role for us. Maybe down the road it allows us to use Megan further up the field.”
In Malaysia, there will be further tournament debutants in the form of Rebecca Barry and Clodagh Cassin who will also play against the Italians in another warm-up match on Jan 11.
Fixtures – Jan 14 (Saturday):
Pool A: Italy v Wales (1.45pm); Thailand v Singapore (3.0pm).
Pool B: Ireland v Kazakhstan (6.15pm); Malaysia v Hong Kong (8.30pm). All matches at Tun Razak Hockey Stadium.