Even with juniors, Malaysia confident of retaining men's hockey gold at SEA Games
Only once has Malaysia failed to strike gold in the history of the South-east Asia (SEA) Games men's hockey competition, a blemish suffered 42 years ago in 1973, at the hands of Singapore, when the Republic hosted the event for the first time.
Malaysia will field its national junior squad for the 28th SEA Games, which will be held here from June 5 to 16, and the mission for the Under-20 boys remains nothing less than gold.
Speaking to The New Paper recently, the team's head coach, A Arulselvaraj, said: "Local (Malaysian) papers are saying that we're taking part in the SEA Games with kids, but we've only ever lost the gold medal once, and we're still going there to win it this time.
"We have sent older players in the past, even retired ones, to make sure we win, but I'd rather put in junior boys - even take 18-year-olds with me - and help the country develop more players for the talent pool.
"I will put my head on the chopping block, and accept the challenge."
The Singapore Hockey Federation believes the men's team can win the gold because they will face a Malaysian junior side.
Solomon Casoojee's Singapore side will get a preview of exactly what they are in for when Arul and his charges travel here for a series of friendlies from May 4 to 14.
Malaysia end their SEA Games preparations with a 10-day trip to Bangladesh from May 20 to 30.
The Singapore team have been forced to split up, after a group travelled to Perth (one stint last month and another earlier this month) while others remained in Singapore to train due to various commitments.
It is one of the reasons why Arul believes the sport here lags far behind Malaysia, whose men's team are 12th in the world rankings, 26 rungs above Singapore.
"I feel very sad for Singapore hockey, the problems are well known. The national team gather and some can't come because of school or work, and then there is National Service to juggle with - it's difficult for the coach to get the full team," he said.
"It's a waste, because you've got some good players. And when you add the fact that the sport of hockey doesn't pay (players) very much, you can see just how big the problem is."
Arul asserts that the situation is not helped by a low level domestic hockey league.
"Singapore is very far behind, and it's quite obvious, the national team get stronger when the league is strong and players get to play at a high level, week in, week out," he said.
"Maybe Singapore should join the Malaysian National League, like the LionsXII (in football). It won't be too hard, we're just next door."
The Singapore men's team were humiliated by the senior Malaysia side 16-1 in a World League Round 2 match recently, and also lost to the same opponents 8-2 at the Asian Games last year, but Arul did see positives in Casoojee's young side.
"I saw the team at the Asian Games and I thought they did well in terms of performance.
"They had confidence, didn't hold back, and went out to play hockey. They could've put 10 men in their own half to try and keep the score down, but they didn't," he said.
Singapore finished last out of 10 teams at the Incheon Games. Malaysia were fourth.
Arul has seen enough to come out in defence of Casoojee and his boys.
"The public is always critical, even here in Malaysia. I think it's perhaps the same situation there - some in Singapore may not have even seen the game, but they come out with strong criticism," he said.
"What do they expect, Singapore to go to the World Cup and Olympics? Some people are just delusional, and they go after coaches."
Arul believes that Malaysian hockey is also facing issues of its own and stands at a crossroads.
Elections for the Malaysian Hockey Confederation are on May 13, but he is focused on the SEA Games.
The four-team SEA Games tourney - also featuring Myanmar and Thailand - is a stepping stone to the Junior Asia Cup (Nov 14 to 22), which is a qualifier for the 2016 Junior World Cup in India.
"I'm definitely confident that we will win gold at the SEA Games," said Arul. "But it's really preparation for the Asia Cup, because we want to make sure we get to the World Cup."
" We've only ever lost the gold medal once, and we're still going there to win it this time. I will put my head on the chopping block, and accept the challenge.
-- Malaysia coach A Arulselvaraj on fielding their Under-20 players for the SEA Games "
... but Dwyer feels singapore can match Malaysia
"In their games (in Perth), I thought (the Singapore players) really improved a lot, individually." — Jamie Dwyer
He has personally led training sessions at the Sengkang Stadium, and has had a close-up look at the Singapore men's hockey players in competitive fixtures when they were on a training stint in Perth last month.
And Australia international Jamie Dwyer believes that Solomon Casoojee's side have improved enough to launch a genuine challenge for gold at the South-east Asia Games on home soil, even if they are up against Malaysia, far and away the best team in the region.
Malaysia sit in 12th spot in the world rankings while Singapore are 38th.
"In their games (in Perth), I thought (the Singapore players) really improved a lot, individually. In fact, that's what I told Mark (Knowles, Australia captain) after I saw them," said Dwyer, at the sidelines of Monday's press conference announcing the partnership between Hockey Australia and Singapore-owned regional company, The Project Group (TPG).
"They just need to put it together as a team, and if they can get confidence, I don't think there will be much between them and Malaysia," added the five-time World Player of the Year.
As part of his work with TPG Academy - launched in December last year and aimed at improving the standard of Singapore hockey - the 36-year-old Dwyer, along with Knowles and a few other Australian internationals, led sessions with the men's national side.
Dwyer believes one key difference between average teams and the great ones, is consistency.
"The problem is this: in some matches, (the Singapore men) do brilliantly, but when they're bad, they're really poor.
"And that's the difference. Take Australia for instance: even when we're bad, we're not that poor," said Dwyer, who won both the Commonwealth Games and World Cup with Australia last year.
But he has seen enough grit among the Singapore men to tip them for bigger things.
"The bunch of players who were here were really dedicated, they trained really hard and I believe all of them could play in the league in Australia," said Dwyer.
"And if they did come over and play week in, week out, at this level of hockey, at this intensity, it would really help them - and the Singapore team - improve.
"Teams like Japan weren't that good a while ago, but they put in the effort and have closed the gap with the rest of the world, just like China did before the (2008 Beijing) Olympics.
"I think it's possible for Singapore to go out there and do the same."
Dwyer knows a thing or two about stepping it up to compete with the best. Last year, he contemplated hanging up his stick, but a stint in the India Hockey League proved that he still had what it takes, a point he showed at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia earlier this month.
Australia finished second to New Zealand, but Dwyer topped the goalscorers' chart, with seven strikes.
"Last year I was unsure about my future, didn't know if I still had enough to contribute, but I really enjoy the game, and being part of the team, and I needed to prove to myself that I could still play," he said.
"I think my touch on the ball is as good as the next guy. It's just a question of if my body can keep up.
"That's the problem - my age. I really need to be vigilant, with food, with what I drink, stretching, the works."
As a testament to his dedication to a professional athlete's lifestyle, Dwyer finished near the top in fitness tests conducted by the Kookaburras.
"I finished second (in the team) in the Beep Test, and I was second fastest over a 10-metre sprint - that really gave me confidence," said Dwyer.
"Now I feel that I can still contribute."